Adventures and Reflections with El Partido de Tres In Colombia

As I scanned the hectic intersection near the India Catalina Monument in Cartagena, looking for a bus to take me to the airport, I noticed that one of the raised medians at this intersection was packed with motorcyclists, soliciting rides around town by way of a chorus of shouts — “Mototaxi! Mototaxi! Mototaxi!” Having seen that mototaxis do not seem to be governed by the same traffic laws as other vehicles in Colombia, I realized one of these traffic-weaving, sidewalk-hopping machines might just be the fastest way to get to the airport. Therefore, after a few minutes of negotiating, I found myself darting through the roads and freeways of Cartagena, racing towards the airport to meet my next set of travel companions: Justin and Isaiah.

After roughly four months traveling through Latin America accompanied by various companions (from old friends, to my brother, to fellow Spanish school students, to friends I have met along the way, to people I wished I did not meet along the way), I have grown comfortable adjusting to the various travel styles and interests of whomever I am with. However, this next set of travel companions added a new twist: my friend Justin is in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the chest down nearly two years ago in a skiing accident out in California. I was equal parts nervous and excited to be joining him on his first foray outside of the United States since this accident. Naturally, Justin, never one to shy away from challenges, chose the developing country of Colombia, a nation that has only recently emerged from decades of violence instigated by aggressive drug cartels, a fierce left-wing armed resistance, and right-wing paramilitary vigilantes. During this time, it is safe to say the country was not particularly focused on wheelchair-accessibility. However, over the next 16 days, as we made our way from Cartagena to Medellín to the mountain town of Jardín, I would be pleasantly surprised and impressed by how much we could do together, by the generosity and kindness of the Colombian people, and by Justin’s unflappability in the face of various situations involving hilariously inadequate accessibility.  What follows are the adventures and experiences of this party of three in Colombia, or, in the beautiful Spanish (which we spoke fluently throughout the trip), this is the story of “El Partido de Tres.”

January 11 – 16: Cartagena, Colombia

We spent our first two nights in Cartagena in the Hotel Fegali, a quaint bed and breakfast in the neighborhood of Getsemaní in Cartagena. The owner, Jorge, a grey-mustachioed man in his 50’s or 60’s who was usually stylishly adorned in a white, v-neck t-shirt with jean shorts and flip-flops, was a kind, spastically attentive host that did everything in his power to make sure we were taken care of…to a fault. Jorge’s hospitality went so far as to include surprise “pop-ins” to our room to make sure that we had clean towels, that the air-conditioning was off/on, that Justin could make it to the dining room for breakfast at the table — which he insisted really was a better experience than eating alone in the room, or, God forbid, eating no breakfast at all. On our second night in Jorge’s spot, however, El Partido-Jorge relations hit a nadir when we were coming back into the hotel after a late night out. It was 2:30 am, and I was repeatedly pressing on the doorbell to wake Jorge (Jorge did not trust us with a key of our own), while Justin was attempting to muscle himself up a step to bring himself even with the door. However, as Jorge approached the door, Justin lost his balance and fell out of his chair onto the street, prompting Jorge to burst through the doorway to try and drag Justin up off the ground. Isaiah and I tried to reassure Jorge that Justin was okay (as evidenced by Justin’s laughter), but a worried Jorge, still shaken from witnessing the fall, could only muster a stern warning to us — breakfast ends at 9:30 am sharp, a mere 7 hours from that moment. Jorge’s shaking head indicated to us that he did not believe we could make this deadline.

Interestingly enough, Justin was not the first person to fall at a doorway our second evening in Cartagena. That honor, in fact, belonged to me. Several hours earlier, we had veered a few blocks off of the gringo-filled bar scene of Getsemaní to explore a street that looked decidedly more authentic. As we strolled the street, our ears caught the sounds of Latin music spilling out into the street from an open doorway. I glimpsed inside the open doorway to see a bar filled with locals, many of them dancing and singing. The scene was too tempting to resist, so we decided to go inside. However, the approach into the bar involved scaling one sizable step through which Isaiah and I would need to lift Justin. As I was backing over the step and pulling Justin up from the back of his wheelchair (Isaiah had the front), I buckled under Justin’s weight and tumbled butt-first through the door and onto the floor of the bar, causing five Colombian men to rush to the rescue. After these men helped us to successfully overcome my literal shaky knees, Justin rolled into the heart of the bar where, within seconds, roughly a dozen Colombians were dancing in a circle around him. Justin promptly responded by spinning in his chair while rhythmically moving his arms, shoulders, head, and flowing brown hair to the reggaeton pumping through the bar’s speakers. Over an hour of dancing there followed by another half an hour of hobnobbing with some more locals at a young Colombiana’s birthday street party on the way back to the hotel left Justin with the momentum that had him muscling up Jorge’s front step that would, only seconds later, lead to his fall. (Enthusiasm cometh before the fall. Or something like that.)

On our third day in Cartagena, sadly, we moved on from Jorge’s spot. However, this was not before successfully repairing relations with our newfound Cartagenian father figure who was pleasantly surprised both to see Isaiah make it up in time for breakfast and to see us pay for room in full. Our next location was an oasis of wheelchair-accessibility and chilled-out rooftop vibes in the middle of the Old City of Cartagena: The Townhouse Boutique Hotel and Rooftop. The Townhouse was run by a friendly quartet, comprised of two Brits, a New Yorker, and a Peruvian (the chef), who were all eager to please given they had opened up the hotel less than a month before our arrival. The positive energy they put off would lead us to spend several hours a day on the rooftop (which conveniently also had gorgeous views of the Old City), where we would meet other travelers, trade our most ridiculous travel stories, cool-off in the rooftop pool, and sip on delicious cocktails. When not on the rooftop, we cruised the bars and restaurants of Old City and Getsemaní, befriending other travelers and becoming honorary locals at La Malagana (known for their fish tacos) and Casa Venita (known, to us at least, for their ridiculously kind waitress Wendy).

Unfortunately, our two days at the Townhouse were cut short a day shy of our flight to Medellín as the hotel closed down for a week to perform some renovations. Therefore, our last night in Cartagena was spent, depressingly, in a cramped room in the Hampton Inn, an experience over which the hospitality professional Isaiah could only shake his head and left all three of us ready to head to Medellín. However, before we could call our trip to Cartagena officially complete, Justin tried out his freewheel on the sands of a Cartagena beach. The freewheel, a third wheel that affixes to the front of his wheelchair to give it greater “off-road” capabilities (think of it as four-wheel drive drive for a wheelchair), allowed Justin to effectively balance his weight as he rolled through the bumpy, sandy terrain to the ocean’s edge where we conducted a successful Justin Beach Model Shoot (photos are currently being considered by several freewheel manufacturers for their next ad campaign).

January 17 – 24: Medellín, Colombia

Our voyage to Medellín was largely without incident — the highlight of which was our airline allowing us to cut the 4 million person baggage check line in the departing airport (Barranquilla) because of Justin’s wheelchair (Justin’s initial response to the offer — “No, we’re okay!” — was interrupted by Isaiah saying, “We actually WILL take the favor. Thank you very much, kind airline!”). In Medellín, we found ourselves in a classy, business-traveler friendly Hotel San Fernando Plaza. Although the hotel itself was basically a part of an American-style mall that had been plopped into the middle of Medellín (albeit with Colombian-owned stores and restaurants), the hotel was near where all the cool kids hang-out in Medellín, El Poblado. El Poblado is an upscale, trendy, hip, and generally safe area of Medellín that attracts the bulk of Western tourists, as well as some wealthier Colombians. Over the next week, the three of us would use this location as our base of operations for exploring the city.

The first night in Medellín, we met up with some friends I made during my time in Guatemala who happened to now be traveling through Colombia. After a delicious pizza dinner (pizza, for some reason, is ubiquitous in Colombia), we headed to La Octava, a dive bar that distinguishes itself by the grown-up sized ballpit located in the back of the bar. Upon seeing this masterpiece of bar ingenuity, Isaiah and I dove in and found that the pit not only was large in width and breadth (maybe 8 feet wide and 15 feet long), but also in depth (nearly 5 feet!). As we played with boyish enthusiasm in this pit of joy (throwing balls in the air, bellyflopping, chucking balls at innocent yet cute bystanders), I made a grave miscalculation in my own fitness to pull-off a selfie amidst the chaos…and dropped my phone deep into the pit’s abyss. Terror overcame me, worsened when the two Colombian girls beside me in the pit told me that no one…ever…had recovered their smartphone from the bottom of the pit. I looked at Isaiah, who was on the other side of the pit, and yelled to him, “Dude! My phone! Is at the bottom!” Isaiah responded calmly with ROTC-inspired rationale, “It must be here. We can find it! Let’s divide the pit into quadrants…and dive for it!” We started on either side of the pit and methodically moved through the first quadrant, “swimming” through the pit with our heads submerged and our hands running across the bottom. When I would come up for (better) air, I couldn’t see Isaiah but could see a ripple move through the balls on the surface, indicating his position. By identifying his progress in this way, I was able to stay in my lane and, thus, we worked through the pit with dangerous efficiency. After nearly 15-minutes and with the bevy of pitside onlookers mostly shaking their heads at what they perceived to be the Sisyphean nature of our efforts, Isaiah shot up from the midst of the pit, right arm raised high, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YOUR PHONE!!” And there it was, my phone held high in his right-hand, a huge grin on Isaiah’s face. I yelped with joy, “Amazing!….I love you!” as cheers and applause rose up through the bar. We then proceeded to dance in the ballpit for one full American ’90’s pop-rock song (likely played ironically by the bar at our expense) before carefully climbing out of the pit. Needless to say, this high stakes rescue mission proved to be the highlight of our first night in Medellín.

The next few days, El Partido explored the nature, restaurants, and bars of Medellín, caught up in the energy of a city that makes it difficult to turn in for the night before 3 am. One evening, we scaled to the top of Nutibara Hill to watch the sun set over this massive, sprawling city that is roughly the size of Chicago, the tranquility of the scene causing our conversation to turn personally reflective. Another afternoon, Justin and I tested the wheelchair accessibility of the surprisingly modern metro system, which includes a cable car that took us out of the city into the green, vast Parque Arví  located in the mountains above Medellín. The metro passed the test for accessibility, although there was a laughably slow electronic platform to carry Justin up and down the stairs outside of the El Poblado Metro Station. The platform was slow enough, in fact, that  a locally elderly man descending down on the platform shouted to us “¡Como una tortuga!” as we stood waiting for the platform at the bottom of a metro station staircase. We also tested out Justin’s freewheel again, this time in the hills south of Medellin, in Parque El Salado, where Justin flawlessly executed a wheelchair river crossing that solicited a much more heartfelt round of cheers from the audience of onlookers than the one Isaiah and I had received a few nights before in the ballpit. On the way back from this adventure, we shared empanadas with a mother and her curious daughter of nine years old who quizzed us in Spanish on what life was like in the United States and told us of her ambitions to learn French and English. And each night, we sampled the Medellín nightlife with other travelers we had met along the way.

On Sunday the 21st, Isaiah returned to the U.S. — unfortunately, painfully sick from the unavoidable, ubiquitous Latin American-itis that has struck each of my guests down in Latin America — leaving El Partido down to just two (“dos”), Justin and I. We mourned Isaiah’s departure over plates of a massive, typical Colombian meal at Mondongos. Each plate included a fried plantain, an arepa (a small, firm tortilla that is typical in Colombia), a bowl of beans, a bowl of mondongo soup (a meat and vegetable soup), a scoop of ground beef, a scoop of rice, a fried egg, half an avocado, and a banana. It was enough food for each of our nonexistent pet horses. (There are pictures below to convince the unbelievers.) That evening, exhausted from the nonstop nature of our traveling and full of heavy food, I crashed early while Justin, man of boundless energy, went out for the evening with with a new friend of ours — Anna from Germany whom we had met the night of the infamous ballpit rescue mission.

With Isaiah gone, we changed sleeping locations from San Fernando Plaza to the Soul “Lifestyle” Apartamentos, a short-term rental apartment complex in El Poblado managed by a cheerful, smiley, metrosexual Canadian named James who seemed to put off the “Lifestyle” vibes this new, luxury apartment complex was going for. Coincidentally, two other friends we had met in our travels (Eleanor from Australia and Kate from Canada) happened to be staying in the same building after having to vacate their AirBnB after finding a webcam creepily pointed at their room. The four of us, along with Anna from Germany, dove right into the Soul “Lifestyle” by grilling on the rooftop one evening. The BBQ came complete with grilled meat, grilled vegetables, and, towards the end of dinner, an older gentlemen from the States named Craig who proceeded to direct the conversation towards a topic more to his liking — himself. This beautiful rooftop BBQ would wrap up our week in Medellín as Justin and I would depart on our next adventure the proceeding day: Jardín and the mountains of Colombia.

January 24 – 26: Jardín, Colombia

Three and a half hours from bustling Medellín is Jardín, a quaint town perched high in the Colombian Andes that features a vibrant central square lined with busy outdoor cafes, a beautiful church, and surprisingly few tourists. To reach it, Justin and I navigated our way through the Medellín bus terminal to our means of transportation: a large, public van that proved to be quite simple for Justin to hop into while stashing his chair in the back. The winding ride up to Jardín, however, was quite a bit more difficult — not just for a top-heavy Justin (the weight of his head combined with his paralyzed midsection caused him to slide in his seat as we hit bumps and turns on the route) but also for the other passengers, many of which made full use of the vomit bags that the driver passed back upon request.  And once in Jardín, our journey was not yet finished as our hostel required a roughly 25 minute climb up out of town on a bumpy dirt road. Despite the rough journey, upon our arrival at Hostel Patio Bonito we knew we had found a special spot. We were greeted by the owner Juan (a young man from Bogota in his late 20’s), his girlfriend Emma (from Belgium), a miniature three-week old cat named Yahtzee (named after Juan and Emma’s favorite board game), Pete (a friend of Emma’s who had been volunteering at the hostel for a month and whose primary responsibility seemed to be keeping guests thoroughly caffeinated with local coffee), a German Shepherd named Rasta (all bark, no bite), Antonio the donkey (known as the “clock” given his habit of bleating roughly once an hour), and some roaming peacocks. The hostel itself was better defined as a mountain farm, with its variety of animals, crops (mandarins and bananas), and its location on the side of a mountain that provided stunning views of the surrounding coffee farms from its porch (hence “Patio Bonito”). We would spend the rest of our first day soaking in the magic of the place by drinking fresh coffee (purchased from the plantation next store), playing with Yahtzee, enjoying a BBQ dinner grilled by Juan, and gazing up at a clear, night sky densely cluttered with bright stars.

Initially only planning to stay one night in Patio Bonito, Justin and I decided to stay on for two given the idyllic location, surprising wheelchair accessibility (the porch’s hammocks were a pleasantly surprising addition to Justin’s “doable” list), and pleasant company. On the second day, we even went so far as to explore a dirt road up into the mountains above Jardín (at the advice of Andrew, the amicable Canadian and Jardín enthusiast that we met at a cafe in town). We reached the terminus of our journey, when Justin, veering to his right to avoid a tuk-tuk speeding past him, toppled out of his chair onto the road. (Luckily, I had the camera rolling to capture the theatrics of the fall.) Unscathed and in good humor, Justin looked further down the steep, rocky road and suggested that this might be a good place to turn around and face the picturesque sunset coloring the sky above the road back into town. I agreed, and we returned to Jardín and a surprisingly delicious pizza dinner at Cafe Europa, one of the few locations in town targeting Western backpackers. After dinner, our way back to Patio Bonito allowed Justin to add another item to the “doable” list: tuk-tuk riding. Antonio, the tuk-tuk driver, kept us distracted from the uncomfortable bouncing and careening of his vehicle up the winding, dirt road by peppering us with facts about his family, stories about climbing in the Sierra Los Nevados, and his enthusiastic endorsements of our hostel (“¡Patio Bonito! ¡Que lindo! ¡Que lindo!”).

January 26-27: Medellín, Colombia

After our second night in Jardiín, Justin and I made our way back to Medellín for one last night out in El Poblado before Justin’s flight out the following day. We met up with Kate and Eleanor for Justin’s farewell dinner complete with Argentinian steaks, red wine, and a poetry reading (the poem was kindly printed out in English by our colorful server who claimed to have worked in each of NYC’s Michelin three-star restaurants before landing in Medellín and the slightly less prestigious La Pampa Parrilla Argentina). We spent the rest of the night dancing to the mix of reggaeton and American pop beats at Vintrash, a crowded club filled equally with backpackers and locals, where at one point Kate looked over to me as Justin rolled away from the dance floor to grab a drink and perfectly captured my sentiment with a matter of fact, “You are going to miss him.”

And the next afternoon, El Partido officially abandoned for the foreseeable future with Justin’s departure for the airport and mine for the bus terminal. In only a few hours, I would be in a hostel in the mountain town of Manizales, prepping for a three day trek into the Sierra Los Nevados, while Justin would be gearing up to get back to his routine in his Denver, Colorado, apartment. However, during those few hours in transit, we would both be suspended in that “in-between time” that traveling so beautifully affords. A time where the mind dances to and fro between thoughts of reflection and expectation as the body is physically transported from the past to the future.

As is so often the case when writing about my travels, I find that just summarizing the facts of who, what, when, where, and why only partially capture the experience. And in many cases, it feels as if my written account only expresses the hollow shell of a much fuller, more vibrant experience. The richness is found a few levels deeper than the mere facts of the day, although where I find this deeper, more rewarding side of the story can vary. For instance, in my solo travels, I have at times, unexpectedly, felt a sense of belonging in foreign places surrounded by people from a variety of different countries I have only recently met. Going from a feeling of amicable camaraderie with new companions to a deeper sense of belonging is difficult to pin-down in a narrative arc, but it has been one of the more rewarding experiences I have had in my travels.
In my time with Isaiah and Justin I experienced something different but equally rewarding. By committing to spend nearly most of our time together for 2+ weeks, in addition to having time to do a lot of things together, we had ample time to allow for meaningful thoughts and conversations to bubble up. One conversation that will stick with me is Isaiah and I’s discussion over breakfast prompted by David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement address (yes, we read this over breakfast), where we agreed with Foster-Wallace’s argument that real freedom is found in choosing to live unselfishly and marveled at the literary skill at which he brought this point home (if you have ~15 minutes, the linked transcript is well-worth the read). We talked about how difficult making that choice daily can be and some tactics around how to get there. However, Isaiah pointed out a flaw behind Foster-Wallace’s anecdote of how spiritually draining a normal routine of, say, going to the grocery store may be — there are many people who would love to have an ordinary, uneventful daily routine where they have the opportunity to make healthy choices regarding their inner monologue. Isaiah’s point made me recognize and be grateful for the relative privilege we both had to be discussing how to best deal with life…when life gets boring.
Another conversation that stands out to me is hearing about Justin’s reaction to the book and movie Me Before You. (Spoiler alert: The story involves a young man who is paralyzed from the neck down and decides to commit suicide a year after his accident even though he and his caretaker have a romance of sorts.) Justin’s response to the main character’s decision to commit suicide was visceral: the character made a narrow, uniformed choice on life, where he overemphasized his new limitations over what he could still experience and what limits could be questioned or stretched. Justin’s passionate argument for life gave me a glimpse into his own conviction of how profoundly worth it life is, even with a loss of some his physical ability, and put a fine point on one of the primary challenges of living in his post-injury world: Staying grateful for what he can do, while maintaining a spirit that constantly challenges and tests assumptions behind his “limits,” and, through that process, having the wisdom to acknowledge that although some of his limits are, in fact, real and final, others are merely vestiges of fearful, faulty thinking that can be steamrolled with a healthy dose of grit and gumption. Justin has been intensely focused on fighting — and winning — this battle since his injury, and it was my pleasure to join him as he dove headlong into this challenge for 16 days in Colombia.

Dos Bandidos in Colombia: Ten Days on the Caribbean Coast

A south Florida wedding in late December left me only a two and a half hour flight from the coasts of Colombia, a destination that foreign travelers through Latin America I have met consistently rave about. Given my lack of any set deadlines or New Year’s plans, I found this distance too close to resist and booked a flight to Cartagena directly after the wedding. I also convinced another attendee of the wedding and one of my oldest and best friends, Cabell Rosanelli, to make the trek down with me to this crown jewel of Latin American tourism. And as is the case with any great team, we had a name to rally behind on this audacious journey. We were Dos Bandidos, “Two Bandits” with little regard for the law and a strong inclination for swashbuckling adventure. Below is our story.

Day 1 – Sunday, December 31, 2017 – Cartagena

We arrived in Cartagena late in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve with little clue on what one does in Cartagena on New Year’s Eve. After checking into our hotel in Bocagrande, a skinny peninsula that extends southwest from central Cartagena into the Caribbean covered with numerous oceanside high rises, we made our way to the beating heart of Cartagena: the Old City. The Old City is what remains (and plenty does) of the walled Spanish city built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Once inside the walls, we quickly found out what goes on in Cartagena for New Year’s — nearly all of the streets are closed to auto traffic and each block is transformed into a street restaurant, complete with seating and live music or a DJ. And these street restaurants, would go from empty (around 7 pm) to packed with local families enjoying a New Year’s Eve Dinner together (around 10 pm) to Latin music dance parties (around 12 am – ??). Cabell and I did not have a reservation, so we ducked inside an open restaurant for an early dinner (8 pm is early for NYE here apparently) before strolling the streets of Cartagena with local beers in hand (with no open container laws and Colombian beers priced at about a dollar a pop, this was an obvious move) doing our best to blend in with the locals (our gringo-fied Spanish and questionable Latin dance moves did not appear to fool many). Exhausted from travel, we made it back to the hotel a little after 2 am, noticing that the citywide party in Cartagena showed no signs of flagging even as we trudged home well past midnight.

Day 2 – Monday, January 1, 2018 – Cartagena

Having attended a wedding on the 29th and then enjoyed a Colombian-style New’s Eve on the 31st, Los Dos Bandidos need most of the first day of 2018 convalescing. We did find some delicious Colombian cold brew coffee at Juan Valdez Cafe (the Colombian Starbucks) and spent some more time meandering the city streets and visiting the Fort San Felipe de Barajas, which offered some beautiful views of the city. After dinner in the Old City, we finished the evening at Cafe Havana, drinking mojitos and shouting over the live Cuban band before retreating back to our Bocagrande hotel.

Day 3 – Tuesday, January 2 – Cartagena and Minca

Dos Bandidos were on the move this day! We scheduled a shuttle to pick us up from our hotel in Bocagrande at 10 am. This pick-up never happened, which was not particularly surprising to me as I have found things often do not quite as one plans in Latin America. (In fact, I usually expect for things not to go as planned, so when they do, I am pleasantly surprised. Could this be a some kind of life lesson in happiness?). To continue our journey, Dos Bandidos ended up at a local bus station to board a shuttle bound for Santa Marta that, despite its shoddy appearance, beamed passengers a workable wifi network. (Colombia must have found some kind of loophole in modern technological adoption given that I have never had this luxury on a bus in the United States.) A four-hour ride brought us to the outskirts of Santa Marta where we took a taxi up the several miles and nearly 2000 feet of elevation gain to Minca, a backpacker crossroads in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Luckily for us, our taxi driver was attempting to set a landspeed record to Minca from Santa Marta, as evidenced by his need to make several multi-car, left-lane passes into oncoming traffic on turns that wound us through the mountains into Minca. From Minca, Dos Bandidos braved the pouring rain and hiked nearly an hour to our hostel (Mundo Nuevo), a surprisingly hard trek, as the 1.5 mile journey featured an elevation gain of roughly 1300 feet (400 meters). Our hosts kindly greeted us with fresh juice, a dinner, and a warm bed.

Day 4 – Wednesday, January 3 – Minca

Dos Bandidos began their day with a hearty breakfast at the hostel followed by an up-tempo hour and a half roundtrip hike to a mirador (“lookout”) that looked out onto Santa Marta, the sea beyond, and the surrounding mountains and jungle. After lunch and a nap, we then tackled the mountain roads and paths of Minca on mountain bikes, which we rented from the hostel. Luz, the main front desk operator at the hostel who spoke very little English and prefaced her responses to our broken Spanish with playful smiles, let on that very few guests actually rent these bikes given the intense climb back up to the hostel and, when tallying up our final costs for the hostel, she would compensate us for our pains by striking the bike rental line item from our bill, declaring it her “gift” to us.

After our four hour mountain bike ride which included a trip to the nearby hotspot of local Colombian tourism — the waterfalls and swimming holes of Pozo Azul — Dos Bandidos finished their day splitting a bottle of wine with Harriet at Mundo Nuevo, our new British friend who works in potentially the most British job you can imagine — advisor to Prince Charles.

Day 5 – Thursday, January 4 – Minca and Casa Santa Elena

Today, we set out from Mundo Nuevo on a new challenge — climbing Cerro Kennedy, a 3100 meter (10,170 ft) peak found roughly 15-20 miles east of Minca. We had heard rumors of a hostel, named Casa Santa Elena, that was a relatively short hike from the summit, at which we should be able to spend the night. However, given that the hostel did not have a webpage or phone number that we could contact (despite repeated attempts by Luz at Mundo Nuevo), we headed out from Minca, hoping for the best. The way to Santa Elena first involved a 18 km (~11 mile) motorcycle taxi ride up to the trailhead to Santa Elena, but the first few mototaxi drivers in Minca we inquired about getting a ride to the hostel trailhead had not even heard of Casa Santa Elena. (One even replied, “I do not know this woman!”) However, we did eventually find two trustworthy-seeming drivers who claimed to know of this fabled Casa Santa Elena, and shlepped us up over the mostly dirt roads (which at times were nearly impassably muddy) for nearly an hour to at a junction with a small stone path, which indicated “3km to Santa Elena.” From there, we headed up and, within an hour, arrived upon our “hostl.” However, Casa Santa Elena, situated on a beautiful ridge overlooking the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is more accurately described as a farm that has sleeping space for travelers. Despite the fact that our accommodations for the night were decidedly light on amenities, we were extremely pleased with the set-up as Anna, the farm caretaker and cook, and Jonathan (pronounced “Yon-a-thon”), her grandson and our guide up Cerro Kennedy, provided delicious food and entertaining company (Anna gave several long, rambling dialogues 100% in Spanish and Jonathan challenged me to a game of cards and then balloon volleyball). Dos Bandidos, thus, would contentedly close their eyes early as a hard, driving rain beat down on the tin roof above the farmhouse.

Day 6 – Friday, January 5 – Cerro Kennedy and Santa Marta

The day got off to an extremely inauspicious start for Los Bandidos as Cabell came down with a stomach bug that had him rising several times early in the morning to head to the bathroom. Although his stomach felt more settled by the time we left for the hike up to the top of Cerro Kennedy, Cabell was forced to turn back after only a few minutes on the trail given his weakened states. Jonathan, our guide, and I pushed own, accompanied by Seús, the consensus “favorito perro” among the inhabitants of Casa Santa Elena. It took Jonathan and I nearly 2 hours to reach the top of Cerro Kennedy, which we did mostly in silence that was punctured from time-to-time by Jonathan offering me freshly picked berries from the trail or describing the owners of the neighboring fincas (most of which were also family members). When we reached the top, the view was largely obscured, but, after a few minutes, the sky cleared enough for us to see all the way out to the tallest peaks in Colombia — Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar (5775 meters/18,700 feet) — both snowcapped and flocked by banks of clouds. Oddly enough, we left Seús on top to fend for himself as he had found a number of other dogs to play with on the peak (the peak of Cerro Kennedy is actually an active army base so there is quite a bit of activity). Jonathan assured me that his grandfather would retrieve Seús the next morning when he climbed up to the army base to sell his cheese. Jonathan and I returned to Santa Elena to find my fellow bandido strong enough to continue the descent off the mountain, so, after lunch, Dos Bandidos headed down to the road to catch mototaxis to take us back to Minca and then, from Minca, a taxi into Santa Marta, our home for the evening.

Day 7 – Saturday, January 6 – Santa Marta

Initially, Los Bandidos had planned to tackle the four-day, three-night journey through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”), the ruins of a recently-discovered ancient city built by the native Tayrona people. However, given Cabell’s weakened state, we decided to hold off on this trek in favor of exploring the Santa Marta area. The city of Santa Marta is the oldest Spanish colonial settlement in Colombia, founded in 1525 by the conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas. Although Cartagena, founded in 1533, quickly surpassed Santa Marta as the most important Spanish Caribbean port in Colombia, Santa Marta still retains much of its colonial character, particularly in the city’s historic district between Parque San Bolivar and Parque Los Novios. Cabell and I spent most of the day exploring in and around this area, commenting on how gringo-friendly it appeared despite its relative lack of gringos. “Underrated” was the word that consistently came to mind as we cruised this city for which travel guides set rather low expectations. We had probably our best meal of the trip at El Balcon de Ouza, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant, that, like Santa Marta, defied expectations. We ended our night on a hopping Santa Marta rooftop bar, sipping Club Colombia Doradas (which had proven itself to be the top national beer), and listening to the DJ expertly pull off the classic gringo bait-and-switch — lure them in with mixes of Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, and Beyoncé, slide in a Despacito, mix in Shakira, and, then, all of the sudden, you’re listening exclusively to heavy reggaeton, salsa, and merengue.

Day 8 – Sunday, January 7 – Santa Marta and Palomino

Dos Bandidos set new tracks on this day, as we ventured further east along the Caribbean Coast to the “vacant” beaches of Palomino. However, we soon found that this “undiscovered” paradise is now sitting firmly on the “discovered” side of the ledger as freshly-built hostels and restaurants crowd the mile-long road leading from the main road to the beach. We spent the afternoon finding our hostel (which took about 35 minutes too long), exploring the beaches of Palomino, and drinking some delicious lemonade at a restaurant (Sua) with laughably slow service (even for Latin America standards). Over dinner, we sat at the same table as a mother and her two teenage daughters from Bogotá who initially engaged us by cackling at our horrendous Spanish. Despite this discouraging start, we proceeded to have a very friendly Spanglish conversation with them, that covered American and British pop music, their impressions of Bogotá, what the older daughter was studying in college (international business), and our travels plans.

Day 9 – Monday, January 8 – Palomino

Having missed our four-day jungle trek due to unforeseen circumstances, Los Bandidos were eager to get out into the jungly Sierra Madre de Santa Marta, one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world. Therefore, we hired a guide to lead us on an 8-hour trek through these mountains that rise just off the coast in Palomino. Our guide, Jesús, was a nineteen-year-old local who, hilariously, guided us through the mountains on his horse while we walked. Jesús led us up a trail that followed the Río Palomino, passed through the indigenous village of Seywiaka, and then cut over to follow the Arroyo (“stream”) Mamaice. After about two hours, he stopped us in a beautiful spot to eat our breakfast by the Mamaice, during which time he disappeared to “find a friend” nearby. Along the trail, we met a lone Colombian man from Medellín who stopped with us for breakfast. Cabell and I did our best to determine if this man was a narcotraficante with intimate connections to the Medellín cartel (my recent Narcos binge inspired me to do my best Agent Murphy impression). However, he refused to admit that he had any “negocios” to attend to in the location deep in the Santa Marta mountains to which he was headed. We ended up spending nearly two hours at this spot, as Jesús certainly had his own business to attend to — he left us for about half an hour to visit a nearby friend then came back and spent another 30-minute taking a bath in the stream.

From our breakfast spot, the path branched off from the Mamaice and climbed up to the top of a ridge that offered breathtaking vistas of the surrounding mountains, jungle, and eventually, as the trail made its way back to Palomino, the Caribbean Sea. We arrived back in Palomino by mid-afternoon and spent the majority of the rest of the day engaged in heated card game of rummy (after my hot start, Cabell proceeded to bring on the fire and fury and bury me at our beachside dinner).

Day 10 – Tuesday, January 9 – Palomino and Santa Marta

The last full day of Los Bandidos’ expedition began on the beaches of Palomino for one last swim before we headed back to Santa Marta. By late afternoon, we were comfortably settled in Santa Marta, engaged in a game of rummy on the rooftop of our hotel. As the game wore on and Cabell’s lead grew, the trip’s last rays of natural light filtered down to us through a brilliant Caribbean sunset. The beauty of the moment prompted Cabell to walk to the edge of the roof to snap a couple photos while a silent prayer of gratitude bubbled up within me. Cabell returned to finish me off, but I was able able to hold off my inevitable defeat until darkness nearly enveloped us both. We spent the last few hours together reflecting on the trip over dinner and making tentative plans for the next Bandidos’ expedition, which, we agreed, must include us sitting on the tops of some high mountains. The next morning Cabell left early, and it was everything I could do to muster a “safe travels, brother” as he vacated the hotel, bound for the U.S. and his own next adventure in Richmond.


Preserving Net Neutrality is Now Up to Congress: Thoughts For My Congressman

Congressman Brat,

First, I wrote you last month expressing my opposition to a provision in the initial House tax bill that counted tuition waivers for graduate students as taxable income. As this provision was removed in the final bill that passed Congress, I wanted to thank you for any support you lent in the removal of this provision.

Second — the crux of why I am writing — is to urge you to work quickly to preserve net neutrality after the FCC’s repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order which provided a regulatory framework for insuring that internet providers do not unfairly favor or block web traffic. With the FCC’s change in policy, it is my understanding that the basic tenets and protections of net neutrality will be best preserved and guaranteed through federal legislation. Representative Blackburn’s proposal ( is a good start, as it would ban both the blocking and slowing of websites. However, I would note that the current version of this bill does not ban providers from selling “fast lanes” to specific websites willing to pay a fee — this was previously disallowed under FCC rules. Therefore, I encourage you to advocate for the addition of some reasonable rules around how and when these “fast lanes” can be sold, as “fast lanes” will inevitably put start-ups and small innovators that cannot pay for this preferred service at a disadvantage.

Finally, I am angry that the recent FCC’s decision to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order was based partially on the premise that broadband investment declined from 2015 to 2016 because of the 2015 regulations, which the FCC Chair called “heavy-handed.” (The data behind this is detailed in the FCC’s annual report on the competitiveness of the wireless industry:  I am hoping you — as a trained economist — can join me in refuting this ridiculous assertion. Pointing out the slight drop in investment from 2015 in 2016 and then arguing this drop must have occurred due to the change in regulations is quite a leap in logic. As any economist worth his or her salt knows, correlation does not imply causation. Before leaping to conclusions, one must ask, are there other factors at play? For instance, could this drop be due to the fact that investment in broadband technologies may be cyclical, as providers move between generations of technology, i.e. between 3G and 4G ( Also, do we have a sufficient dataset? Wouldn’t any careful analysis look at overall trends in data prior to the imposition of the 2015 regulations to see if blips are expected or normal? Once you include this data, you would notice that between 2013 and 2015, before the net neutrality rules were in place, there was also a drop in broadband investment (investment was $33.1 billion in 2013 compared to $30.9 billion in 2015, Shouldn’t that fact be considered before assigning causation to the regulations? Finally, should the FCC ignore the claims of the major telecom companies themselves when they insisted to their investors that the net neutrality rules the FCC enacted in 2015 would not slow their investment in new broadband technology ( As a former professor of economics, I am sure you would have sternly corrected any student that came to you with the “analysis” the FCC has presented to the American public as “proof” that the 2015 Open Internet Order caused investment in broadband to decrease.

Aside from the fact that a major reason for the change in FCC rules was sold to the American public based on a comically faulty economic analysis, I could buy the argument that the FCC’s current framework for insuring net neutrality for consumers is overly burdensome and out-of-date, given that it relies on the classification of internet providers as utilities under Title II of the Communications Act, which was designed to regulate 1930’s era telecoms. If that is the case, then fine. Let’s create or change the law to create a more sensible approach for broadband in the 21st century that adequately protects consumers against the whims of gigantic corporations. (For the record, I do not think that the “promises” that these major providers have given not to change how they provide internet service after this recent change is sufficient.) Therefore, I encourage you to work with your colleagues in Congress to shore up legal protections for us in the wake of the FCC’s decision.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and I look forward to seeing you move forward productively on this issue that is so important not just to the day-to-day functioning of the American economy, but is also essential in insuring a vibrant democracy.


Richard Andrews

Signing off from Guatemala with the Country’s Top Entrepreneurs

Richmond, Virginia, United States

And just like that, my three month stay in Guatemala, bookended by two weeks in Chiapas, Mexico is over. Moments after returning to the United States, I found myself in the Atlanta airport, munching on a Chik-fil-A Chicken Sandwich (they are in short supply in Guatemala) and converting US dollars to Guatemalan quetzals in my head (“Really? I just spent nearly 40 quetzals on this?”). Contemplating the deliciousness of my chicken sandwich despite its high quetzalian price, my thoughts drifted back to Lake Atitlán and the tastiest food I experienced there: a bag of popcorn bought off of a roving street vendor, known fondly to my friends and I as “The Popcorn Lady.” This local Guatemalan would boldly venture into the bars of San Pedro late at night, capitalizing on the inebriated gringos and their lowered inhibitions with a laundry hamper full of popcorn bags for sales at an impossibly low price of 5Q a bag (a little less than $1 USD). Night-after-night, I marveled at this enterprising Guatemalteca as she exploited this golden market opportunity, and my view of her began to shift from that of friendly street vendor to plucky entrepreneur, providing a top-notch product to a segment of the San Pedro community rife with spare cash and a willingness to spend it (specifically: drunk Americans, Europeans, and Australians). This experience with “The Popcorn Lady” led me to begin taking note of other entrepreneurs in Guatemala who were making the most of the limited opportunities offered in a country with a national poverty rate around 60% and a per capita GDP of less than $8,000. As my observations of these go-getters accumulated, I began nominating “Entrepreneurs of the Week” for particularly exemplary examples of business ingenuity. And now, looking back on the nearly three months I spent in the country, these individuals flood back into my memory, and so, while they are still fresh in my mind, I would like to highlight a few of my favorite Guatemalan entrepreneurs that, at one time another, were recipients of the esteemed “Entrepreneur of the Week” award.

Jorge and His Rope Swing

Roughly a 30 minute canoe ride from the island town of Flores in El Lago Peten Itzá lives Jorge, his family, and his famous lakeside rope swing. Jorge charges visitors 10Q (~$1.50 USD) for access to his twenty-foot high rope swing and his accompanying lakeside hangout that includes hammocks and a diving platform (about 15-20 feet high). Further demonstrating his enterprising spirit, Jorge, having noticed that his steady stream of visitors are often hungry and thirsty after their boat ride across the water, also sells modestly-priced hot food and drinks (a delicious plate of his nachos for 25Q goes great with a cold Gallo for 15Q). This humble tourist attraction has improbably climbed up to TripAdvisor’s #2 spot on “Things to Do in Flores,” a popping tourist destination given its proximity to the world-renowned Mayan ruins of Tikal, roughly a 1 hour drive away. Quite refreshingly, Jorge fully embraces the tropical island vibes of the Flores area by waiting on customers without the unnecessary encumbrances of a shirt or shoes.

Photo cred:

Miguel, Coffee Plantation Owner and Lakeside Sunrise View Facilitator

Miguel is the owner of a coffee plantation situated on the ridge of Indian Nose, a popular hike for tourists looking for a brilliant view of Lake Atitlán, particularly at sunrise. Miguel is in a fierce competition for customers with the owners of the viewpoint from the top of Indian Nose (Miguel’s property does not quite reach the top but offers views from the summit ridge). However, Miguel is holding his own in a number of ways. First, he undercuts the competition on price by charging about 50Q less than what it would cost to reach the top for only a marginally better view of the lake. Second, at his highest viewpoint, Miguel provides his customers some luxury via a few hand-crafted benches and cups of freshly-brewed coffee from his plantation. Finally, Miguel effectively employs the disinformation strategy in sales know as FUD (“fear, uncertainty, and doubt”) by labeling the owners of the top of the ridge as “bandidos” that will “steal your money.” Given some TripAdvisor reviews that suggest robberies have occurred in the area, I find this strategy of Miguel’s especially compelling. Fight on, Miguel, fight on!

Enjoying Miguel’s coffee from his beautiful viewpoint

Keith, the Chocolate Shaman

Keith may be the most controversial member of this list, given he is originally from Pennsylvania and one of the goals of the “The Entrepreneur of the Week Award” is to elevate the locally-run enterprises. However, given Keith’s incredibly unique entrepreneurial play — that of chocolate shaman — I must give the man his due. Keith and his cacao ceremonies have attracted a devoted following in the Lake Atitlán village of San Marcos La Laguna, and although I admittedly never attended one of these ceremonies, I heard quite a bit about his business proposition from some of his customers and I found it be utterly brilliant. Keith charges each attendee of his biweekly cacao ceremony 200Q (~$30 USD), which comes with a cup of hot cocoa and a 4-6 hour service, replete with spiritual revelations conjured up through the cacao (at Keith’s urging) and Keith’s long meandering monologues about whatever he chooses to expound on that day (one of the more exciting monologues I heard about focused on aliens and how they influence our daily lives). Keith works on Wednesdays and Sundays (the days on which he holds ceremonies,) and, thus, has five days off to brew cacao and enjoy his sizable profits. It really is a wonder that more kids don’t want to be chocolate shamans when they grow-up!

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Photo cred:

The Popcorn Lady of San Pedro La Laguna

And of course, we must end with “The Popcorn Lady” of San Pedro La Laguna. She produces some of the most delicious popcorn you will ever taste. A perfect balance of salty and sweet, her popcorn is best washed down by the Cuba Libre, Gallo, or shot of mezcal that is sure to be in your hand as you are frequenting one of the bars on the “The Popcorn Lady’s” route. Throughout my time in San Pedro, I was never able to down her irresistible calls of “¡Poporopos! ¡Poporopos!” (Guatemalan for popcorn) and, at a price of 5Q/bag, who could?!


And with this homage to some of the most interesting and enterprising individuals I met throughout my time in Guatemala, I am closing out my tales from Central America as the holidays have blown me back to States. However, the travel bug has not been quite cleared from my system as I will be flying down to Colombia for the month of January and I’m sure some tales from there will find there way to the pages of this blog.

Wait…But How Serious is the Mueller Thingy for Trumpy? A Summary of Jeff Toobin’s Fantastic Legal Analysis

The media frenzy surrounding Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign and its possible collusion with Russia has made for some salacious, exciting reading that is rife with conjecture, theories, and prognostications of impeachment. It is also the subject of intense skepticism and ridicule by conservative media outlets and the White House, which has labeled the investigation a fruitless “witch hunt” that is only months (or weeks, if you are Trump’s lawyers) from being abandoned. I, like many, have been eagerly inhaling all of this media exhaust, but it was not until I came across Jeffrey Toobin’s clear-eyed, legal analysis of the current status of the Mueller investigation in the New Yorker and his subsequent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that I realized how little I understood of the investigation and its potential ramifications for Trump. What I discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the dangers that this investigation poses for Trump’s presidency lie somewhere between the calls for impeachment coming from the mainstream media and the collective eye roll coming from the pro-Trumpers. I highly recommend that you check out both the New Yorker article and the Fresh Air interview. However, in case you are short on time (the content is lengthy), I gathered some of my high-level takeaways from Toobin’s thoughts below.

Q: What crimes may Donald Trump have committed that Mueller is investigating?

There are three areas of criminal inquiry of the Mueller investigation:

  1. Illegal lobbying activity of Trump campaign associates – Trump is not under investigation here
    • This focuses on Trump associates (Manafort, Gates, and Flynn) and is unlikely to implicate Trump directly. However, Mueller may use discoveries of wrongdoing here as a bargaining chip to extract more information from those close to Trump. Specifically, he will be looking for more information on the next two areas of the investigation detailed below that would implicate Trump more directly.
  2. Collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign – Trump looks suspicious here but likely not guilty
    • “Collusion” is not a crime under federal law, so Mueller is likely looking into possible criminal activity related to collusion. Toobin surmises that both are related to WikiLeaks and its hacking of email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Two potential crimes are:
      • The Trump campaign received “in-kind” donations from WikiLeaks in the form of information (emails) that they hacked. Since federal law prohibits political campaigns from seeking or obtaining contributions from foreign individuals or entities, proving this would be a crime.
      • The Trump campaign aided and abetted WikiLeaks hacking of emails, which is illegal.
    • Proving criminal activity for both will be difficult as for the first, Mueller will have to use the novel argument that “information” constitutes an “in-kind” campaign contribution and for second, Mueller would have to prove that the Trump campaign somehow helped WikiLeaks hack the DNC or, if they did not know about the hacking before it occurred, make the argument that the Trump campaign distributed these emails knowing they were obtained illegally (proving this “knowledge” will be very difficult). Finally, it is possible that Mueller can link some of the crimes above to Trump’s associates but not Trump himself.
  3. Trump obstructed justice – Trump is almost certainly guilty, but can he be prosecuted?
    • There are two cases where Trump appears to have obstructed justice:
      • Trump fired James Comey for “corrupt motives,” i.e. to stop the investigation into himself and his campaign. Trump essentially has admitted to this on two separate occasions: 1.) May 10th in a meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister, 2.) May 11th, in an interview on NBC with Lester Holt.
      • By asking Comey to “take it easy” on Flynn when Trump knew he lied to the FBI. Trump admitted he knew that Flynn had lied to the FBI via a tweet on December 2nd.
        • It’s an open question if he pressured Comey (Trump denies Comey’s account) and, if he did, Mueller would have to prove that Trump knew before this exchange that Flynn lied to the FBI.
    • Trump is likely guilty here but it is an open constitutional question whether or not a sitting President can be prosecuted for a crime while in office. This is the crux of Trump’s lawyer’s argument that he cannot be charged criminally with obstruction of justice.
    • However, it is a clear-cut matter of historical precedent that Presidents can be impeached for obstruction of justice (see Nixon and Clinton).

Q: There’s been a bit of chatter about Trump and team’s possible violation of the Logan Act between the election and Inauguration Day, specifically as it relates to discussions they had with the Russians. Why does Toobin not this reference this as a potential problem for Trump?

The New York Times editorial board recently suggested that Trump, if he ordered Flynn to negotiate with Russians ahead of his assumption of office, could possibly have violated the Logan Act, a federal law which states that private citizens cannot negotiate with foreign powers without the consent of the current President’s Administration. However, Toobin likely left this out given that many legal experts argue that any attempt to prosecute Trump and team under this law, which has never been successfully enforced in over 200 years of existence, could successfully be rebuffed by claiming “desuetude” status for the law (desuetude is  the legal doctrine that posits criminal statutes may lapse if they are never enforced).

Q: Outside of criminal behavior, what else could be problematic for Trump?

The impeachment clause of the Constitution states that the President can be impeached for the “conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” so, in addition to “high crimes and misdemeanors” committed by Trump, Mueller is likely looking into possible “bribery” given his extensive business dealings with Russian interests (which would be the reason Mueller is allegedly interested in Trump’s bank records). “Treason,” on the other hand, is defined in the Constitution as “levying war” against the United States, which is likely inapplicable to Trump’s conduct.

Q: So what are the potential outcomes of Mueller’s investigation?

There really are three potential outcomes, which are listed in increasing order of likelihood according to Toobin:

  1. Mueller finishes his investigation and says “no crimes or anything to report” as it relates to Donald Trump. – Unlikely
  2. Mueller brings criminal charges against Donald Trump for obstruction of justice and/or the crimes related to collusion above. – Could happen but would be unprecedented for a President to be charged of a crime while in office and would raise serious Constitutional questions.
  3. Mueller provides a report to Congress, detailing all of the dubious connections between Trump’s campaign and Russia while details how Trump may have obstructed justice – This the most likely outcome

Q: Ok, so if Mueller produces a relatively damning report of Trump, then what happens? Impeachment?

If Mueller provides a report to Congress, then what Congress does with the findings of his investigation becomes a political matter, i.e. is Congress willing to move forward to impeach Trump? In all likelihood, impeachment will happen only if Democrats control one or both house of Congress (as a matter of precedent, impeachment proceedings have only started when the majority party in Congress differs from that of the President). In short, the 2018 elections are just as important in determining whether or not Trump gets impeachment as the substance of the report that Mueller produces.

Q: Wait, so really, in the end, the outcome of Mueller’s investigation really just comes down to politics?

Yup, that’s right. Welcome to Washington, D.C. folks.

Palenque, Roberto Barrios Falls, and Alien Rumors in Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque, Mexico

The road from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to the Palenque ruins is a tortuously winding, pot-holed affair that left me nauseous and then relieved once we arrived at our first stop along the road — a Mexican breakfast buffet that came complete with tortilla chips and chicken enchiladas (which, sadly, I have been lacking as part of my breakfasts these past 31 years). Along the way to Palenque, my tour stopped at two waterfalls: Agua Azul (the name means “blue water” in Spanish but, that day, the water was bizarrely a murky brown due to a mysterious project going on upstream) and Misol-Ha (featuring a bat-filled cave behind the waterfall that I ventured into for a cool ten pesos — or roughly 50 American cents). Including these two stops, it took us nearly eight hours to reach Palenque, a major city of the Ancient Maya which, along with much of the Mayan civilization, strangely disappeared in the 10th century A.D. (My favorite theory: The Mayans were descendants of aliens and simply returned to their home planet. The more plausible theory: Draught due to deforestation caused them to abandon their cities and scatter in the search of a more hospitable environment).

Only 4% of the Palenque ruins have been excavated but that small area is quite impressive. The main excavated ruins area is relatively compact and organized into three major groups (Templo de las Inscripciones and El Palacio Grupo, Grupo de las Cruces, and Grupo Norte). You can easily see all of the major buildings in less than two hours, including the time needed to climb up the buildings still open for public scampering. Upon entering the park, you are almost immediately greeted by the iconic Templo de las Inscripciones, a Mayan pyramid that rises nearly 90 feet over eight tiers above the green, manicured grass and, under which, the most powerful king in Palenque’s history (Pakal), is buried. The royal palace sits adjacent to the Templo de las Inscripciones and provides a number of different ancient rooms, passages, and, restored for your viewing pleasure, toilets to explore. Mind-blowingly enough, there are also a number of preserved carvings depicting scenes from Palenque circa the 7th and 8th centuries that are decidedly trippy in nature — many have hypothesized that these scenes are likely inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms that grow in and around Palenque (after observing these carvings myself, I found this logic pretty airtight — see pictures below). Beyond the palace, is the Gropo de las Cruces, three temples that back into the jungle and are the work of the Pakal’s son, Kan B’alam II, whose street name was a much more intimidating Jaguar Serpent II. Each of these are scalable, provide beautiful vistas of the ruins below and valley beyond, and are replete with the requisite mind-bending carvings. The final group is the Gropo Norte, which seem to be the red-headed stepchild of Palenque as most tours ignore these beautiful buildings in favor of the slightly more impressive Palacio and Cruces Grupos. And I can see why — after only two hours exploring the other two sets of ruins, I already had a well-developed sense of Mayan ruin snobbery, as evidenced by the “mehh, I’ve seen better” I muttered under my breath as I walked by.

I had arrived in Palenque via an insanely itineraried one-day tour that left San Cristóbal at 4:30 am and would return at approximately 10 pm. However, in a moment of sanity, I decided to stay the night near the Palenque ruins instead of taking a six-hour bus back to San Cristóbal. I found a spot to stay just outside the ruins in El Panchan. My accommodations were in a place ironically named “The Jungle Palace,” which is basically just a set of shabby cabanas in the jungle. However, the price of 120 pesos/night/cabana (~$6 American) was hard to beat and Don Mucho’s Restaurant nearby promised live music and cheap beer, so I took the bait and spent the next two nights there.

The next day, after the first night in my “palatial” cabana, I ventured to Roberto Barrios Falls, a set of ten different blue waterfalls and crystal clear pools, a 35-minute drive from Palenque. I went via a guided trip to this spot that is decidedly off the main tourist route and found myself in a group composed primarily of Mexicans, an interesting change from Guatemala where I didn’t meet a single local tourist (a per capita GDP of 3x in Mexico certainly explains much of this disparity). Our guide was refreshingly unencumbered by trifling worries like customer safety and liability as he nonchalantly walked us up, over, and through a number of the slippery falls to show us underwater caves, rocks to slide down on top of empty 2-liter soda bottles, and harrowing jumps. (When the “landing pools” were a bit on the shallow side, he told us you were were fine as long as you “made like a bomba” when you hit the water. Thus, several times I tucked my feet upon impact to “make like a bomba” and avoid a debilitating injury.) My favorite co-touree was a short, smiley Mexican lady in her 40’s who did every single jump, cave, and slide while speaking a rapid-fire Mexican Spanish to which I could only reply “Si, si, si!” After one particularly unintelligible request from her, I found myself traipsing across a waterfall to join her for a photo in the middle of one of the pools. The man who took the photo from the bank looked over to me after I returned to dry land and, in what little English he knew, laughingly remarked to me, “This lady…crazy!”

I ended my last night in the Palenque area at Don Mucho’s, which, as promised, offered live music and cheap beers. I was joined by two Irish I had met in my hostel at San Cristóbal; this brother and sister were traveling through Latin America together for several months together with their other brother and his girlfriend. We chatted at length about recent Irish history and politics as they are from Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, which is still part of the UK. (Fun fact I learned: The impetus for the Irish independence movement and civil war was the result of England reneging on their promise to grant Ireland self-rule for their support during World War I — which is still a sore subject for the Irish.) And, of course, the conversation did at one point turn to Donald J. Trump, the specter that follows every traveling American around. They asked me the simple, justified question of “Why?” which I hear from almost all other international travelers, who are universally flabbergasted at the onslaught of disturbing news and tweets generated by this man who, to them, represents the epitome of close-mindedness and hate. However, I have learned to steer clear of this rabbit-hole and, after assuring them that I was asking the same question myself, moved on to more hopeful topics…like 2020.


San Cristóbal de Las Casas: Cocodrilos, Controversial Catholics, and a Clandestine Army

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico

I have finally ventured beyond my Latin American home-away-from home — Guatemala — and into the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, a region that was actually once a part of Guatemala. My first destination: San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the cultural capital of Chiapas and center of the Zapatista movement, a left-wing political and military group standing up for indigenous rights. This group is still technically at war with the Mexican government, but fortunately for me (and other visitors), after an armed resistance in the 1990’s, the Zapatistas have moved from violent to peaceful tactics that are focused on civil resistance, enhanced cooperation with other global left-wing movements, and the development of a vast array of hipster-friendly coffees shops in San Cristóbal.

I arrived in San Cristóbal this past Thursday evening after a ten hour journey from Lake Atitlán, and, exhausted after the trip, laid low that night. I spent most of Friday, my first full day in the city, taking a free walking tour of the town in order to get a better feel for this artsy hub of Mexican counter-culture. A youthful, lanky Mexican named JP led the relaxed, five-hour amble through the town’s two main “walking streets” (i.e. closed to auto traffic), Real de Guadalupe and 20th de Noviembre. JP, despite having only lived in San Cristóbal for six months, provided the other two tourers (Laura, an Aussie, and Eva, an Irishwomen) and I a wealth of information on the city’s history, culture, art, and top dining and nightlife spots. JP, who would joke several times about how people come to San Cristóbal for vacation then end up never leaving (which would be repeated by several others “locals” I would meet around town), would solidify the quality of his recommendations by proving himself as a man about town — I would bump into him three times over the next few days at different separate spots he had recommended. My favorite recommendation of his was La Abuelita, a local Mexican eatery near Guadalupe Church where I would improbably eat my favorite rendition of three separate Mexican staples: refried beans, chicken enchiladas, and a chile relleno. (For all those doubters out there, Mexican food is, in fact, better in Mexico.) My second favorite tip of JP’s was his observation that the festival of the Virgin Guadalupe was in full swing in San Cristobal, as later the next night, I would find myself stuck in the throngs of a parade marching the streets of the city, chanting “¡Viva la Virgen!” Having learned the legend of Guadalupe from JP, I was able to enthusiastically join the locals in this chant, which, without context, is certifiably creepy.

After spending the majority of my second day in Zapatista coffeeshops, contemplating whether or not the Zapatista Army may have the need for a 31-year-old white male with an intimate knowledge of online programmatic advertising, I sprang back into action the next day with a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon, about an hour drive from San Cristóbal. At a sprightly 35 million years old, this canyon is a contemporary of the Grand Canyon of the United States and a point of pride for Chiapas, as a particular view of its expanse is represented on their state seal (which also curiously includes what looks like a lion tickling a palm tree). My boat for the tour was stocked full of two dozen gringos who would all nod in collective false comprehension when our Spanish language-only guide gave a bit of information on the impressive number of canyon features and wildlife we passed on our way through the canyon. The showstoppers were the crocodiles (one swimming, one sunbathing — both visibly annoyed at the gawking tourists), the spider monkeys (we were close enough to these playful branch-swingers that if one missed a jump from one tree to another, it would have fallen into our boat cruising along the riverbank), and a canyon-side waterfall shaped like a Christmas tree (which is cool…I think?). At each of these highlights, my boat neighbor (Cam, a recent university graduate from Quebec) and I would snap photos then turn to each other and comment at the relative absurdity of this exercise, “Welp, ya really can’t capture that, can ya?” After several hours in this canyon with walls that reach up to 1,000 meters (~3,300 feet) above the water at its highest points, we returned to the boat dock to finish the tour exploring the nearby pueblo of Chiapa de Corzo.

Today, my fourth and final day here in San Cristobal was highlighted by a horseback ride up to the indigenous community of San Juan Chamula, which is best known for its main church — Iglesia de San Juan — that combines Catholicism with traditional Mayan pagan worship. Although I did not witness it in my walk through the church (it was relatively quiet when I was inside), the pagan rituals include chicken sacrifices and drinking Coca-Cola or “pox” (a local liquor) in order to induce burps that release evil spirits. (I will be sure to reference this ritual the next time anyone looks at me in disgust after a shameless belch.) Unsurprisingly, this rebel church is only loosely connected to the official Catholic church given its drift aways from Catholic rituals — the only contact it has with Catholicism is a priest that visits once a month for baptisms and the icons of Catholic saints that line the perimeter of the church. Aside from the church, there is not much else to see in Chumula other than some innovative fashion so after about an hour, my fellow horsemen and horsewomen jumped back on our steeds to gallop back to the environs of San Cristóbal.

Despite greatly enjoying my time in San Cristóbal, I have politely turned down the Zapatista’s invitation to join their movement (although I did let them know that I would reach back out this time next year if my job hunt back in the homeland is not going well). So tomorrow, I am off to Palenque, the site of a major Mayan ruin that, sadly, was not used as a filming site for any Star Wars movies. And then, it is back to Guatemala City for my return flight to the United States on December 12th, just over three months since I departed on this random adventure.