Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pablo Escobar Tour and the Continuing Adventures in Medellin

Here you see rewards for Pablo and Roberto. Pablo is dead, but on Friday we met Roberto. We did the Pablo Escobar tour here in Medellin. Normally this tour has anywhere from 10-40 people on it, but for some reason it wasn't very popular on Friday so we had the tour all to ourselves, a private tour for the Shapiroadventurers. They picked us up and took us to a few places of interest, an old safehouse, the Escobar home, and Pablo's grave; all the while teaching us about the life of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. It's fascinating how different perceptions and reality can be. For years the cartel was basically exporting cocaine and importing dollars, very little violence, and plenty of money floating around. Pablo had an amazing reputation for giving back to the poor. There are numerous stories about him building homes for the homeless, setting up soccer fields for poor kids, and even a free public zoo. Supposedly when Pablo died and the government took over the zoo all the animals except for the hippos died because the government couldn't afford to feed them. Apparently he owned two soccer teams as a means to launder all the drug money coming in. He was also friendly rivals with the jefes of other cartels and they would have friendly soccer matches with bets going into the millions. There are literally neighborhoods named after him because he bought all the homes for the poor. There are many who would say that he did a lot of good in that respect, as well as basically requiring all illegal activity to go through him. Supposedly kidnappings weren't allowed, and it wasn't until the late 80's that things started to get bad.

Here you see Sarah through the bulletproof window of a chevy truck. This truck was a gift to Pablo from the Cali cartel before they became enemies. At some point the Colombian government, as well as various American agencies started to go after Pablo, but many locals think it was competing cartels who wanted more business that took advantage of the situation and started to attack Pablo and the Medellin cartel. They formed a group and basically started recruiting people from Pablo's organization under threat of death. Meanwhile, assasination attempts were going wild. Pablo started fighting back, and the war in the streets began. This is when the Medellin everybody has heard about really earned its reputation, 800 police officers killed in one year, bombings, assasins, etc. This was not a safe city at this time.

Here we are with Pablo's brother Roberto. Roberto was supposedly responsible for the financial aspects of the cartel. For that he served 11 years in prison. We asked him how he remembers his brother and how he thinks others should remember him. He did point out some interesting items. Pablo was essentially a businessman who gave back a lot of his wealth to the local urban poor. He was #7 on Forbes list of richest people. He built thousands of homes, numerous soccer fields, had a free zoo for kids, and even at one point offered to pay off all foreign Colombian debts. That said, Roberto saw much of Pablo's actions as justifiable, their mother was killed by a bomb. Roberto is mostly blind and partially deaf, also the cause of a letter bomb. Earlier this year his house was broken into and a robbery was attempted, we saw the bulletholes. What choice did Pablo have but to fight back? Many people think that it got worse after Pablo died because there was nobody to enforce any rules over the smaller criminals who couldn't get away with anything while Pablo was around. Apparently this is somewhat true based on the statistics of the time. Regardless, it was a very interesting look into the life of one of the most loved and most hated Colombians of all time. His is an era in the history of Medellin that few will forget but has served to make the city stronger.

Anyways, tomorrow we leave Medellin and head to a small town in the Zona Cafetera, Salento. We will let you know how it compares to Boquete coffee-wise!

Friday, April 27, 2012

6 Months International

Although we left Los Angeles on the 26th, we didn´t cross our first border until the 27th, which means TODAY marks us as being actually out of the country for 6 months. Whenever we talk to our family and friends, people always want to know what´s the BEST thing we´ve done. With so many interesting experiences, today I´m going to attempt a BEST (and WORST) of Shapiro Adventures. If there are any other categories you´d like to hear about, please leave comments and we´ll try to answer them!

BEST: Casa Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador. Room had private bath, hot water shower, flat screen TV. Nicest and best equipped kitchen we´ve used, free water, free coffee. A sign at reception reads, ¨Need rolling papers? Ask Carlos.¨ All for $22/night.
Honorable Mention: Mamallena, Boquete, Panama. Free pancake batter in the mornings, hot water, excellent vidoe/movie collection for rainy days, really nice staff, fun activities and tours, comfy and warm beds.
WORST: Monte Cristo, Citala, El Salvador. Room had no key, the ¨bathroom¨ was cardboard around a drain and a toilet with no seat, loud music and noise from the bar inside the hotel, we were locked in overnight, rooms usually rented by the hour.
Honorable Mention (WORST): First Hostel by bus stop, Dominical, Costa Rica. This place was actually pretty nice, except for the cockroach IN OUR BED and in the lockers.

Street Food
BEST: Cabeza Taco Cart, Olas Altas, Mazatlan, Mexico. 6 pesos (approx. 50 cents) for cabeza tacos. Cabeza mix includes jaw meat, brains, eyes, and more! The loaded potatoes are also to die for. Honorable Mention: All sliced fruit vendors in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. There is no better snack than sliced mango, coconut, melon, papaya, etc. with lime or lemon, salt, and picante! Copan, Honduras, Lady making ¨carnitas de pollo y res¨ (aka shish-kebab) with spicy vegetables, beans, tortillas, salad, salsa for $1.25. Find her near the central park, first or second stall.
WORST: Costa Rica. There is no street food. Not even street fruit. BOO!

Border Crossing
BEST: Mexico to Guatemala. It´s really an imaginary line in the middle of a shopping town. (If you read our Mirador post, you´ll see they don´t even KNOW where it is!) The Guatemalan official stamped all the passports of everyone on our shuttle and handed them back to the first person in line. Entry fee not charged. WORST: Nicaragua to Costa Rica. There are two forms required, but the officials do not have any forms. You must buy them from children who hang around the border. We waited in line for an hour, which is short compared to others we´ve talked to.
Honorable Mention (WORST): Costa Rica to Panama. Buildings and border are extremely poorly marked. We walked out of Costa Rica without even realizing it and had to walk back twice.

BEST: Manuel Antonia, Costa Rica. Half of this beach is in a national park, half outside. It is wide and flat with light sand and clear waters. At high tide, the water comes right up to the palm trees.
Honorable Mention: El Tunco, El Salvador, for the black volcanic sand and awesome vibe. Melaque, Mexico, for not being a surf town and an awesome small town feel.
WORST: Dominical, Costa Rica. The beach itself is dirty and rocky, and not very nice to sit and walk on. Supposedly a good surfing beach, there were surprisingly few surfers out.

Country to Learn Spanish
BEST: Quetzeltenango (Xela), Guatemala. And not just because that´s where we did it, we checked prices and places in other cities. Xela has more schools, more teachers, and better prices. Nearly every other city and country we´ve looked at (Antigua, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil (for portuguese) and they are usually at least double if not more, WITHOUT the homestay. We paid $135 per person, per week for 25 hours of one on one study plus homestay with 21 meals plus afternoon activities (we paid for extra transportation, but guides included). Interested? Check out

Tipico/Typical Foods
BEST: Nicaragua. Small comedors offer huge plates of Carne with rice, beans, fried plantains, Indio Viejo is a wonderful stew, gallo pinto everywhere, and don´t forget, Iguana Soup!
Honorable Mention: Guatemala, for mountains of vegetables in your soup for $1, and Colombia, for giant platters of food for not much more.

BEST: El Cuartito, Xela, Guatemala. One of our favorite places to study after Spanish school, the Cuartito has comfy chairs, wifi, and much needed hot beverages. At night, it turns into a bar with wine and drinks and live music by local bands. Honorable Mention: Juan Valdez, Colombia. Colombia´s answer to Starbucks.

BEST: Mexico. Possibly every person we met in Mexico told is how happy they were that we had come to visit their country. Mexico has gotten such a bad rap from the press and to us, it seems really undeserved. Yes, there is trouble near the border related specifically to drug trafficing, but the rest of the country is pretty safe and very modern. Mexico is a first world country, whereas the rest of Central America, Costa Rica included, is not quite there yet. (There are some very modern cities, especially Panama City, but there are many cities, major cities, where people live without electricity and running water. While it may be true for some very rural parts of Mexico, the majority of people live with the same modern conveniences we would expect in the states.) The people in Mexico seemed to go above and beyond to be kind to strangers: from friendly conversations on the bus to calling their friends on cell phones to help with directions, we felt extremely welcome.
Honorable Mention: Every other country. It seems everyone in Central America, and Colombia so far, are generaly disposed to friendliness.

Other Travellers
BEST: Canadians. We seem to have partied with a lot of Canadians. They just tend to be polite, friendly, and able to hold their liquor (especially the crazy French-Canadians). A case where the stereotype seems to be true!
Honorable Mention: Australians, despite their horrible Spanish pronunciation, they are also generally nice and always find an excuse to drink beer (we´re on top of a mountain, let´s have a drink! it´s 3 o´clock, let´s have a drink!); Brits, especially Oxford Girls - of whom we´ve met a surprising number, they always have something witty to say and in that damn adorable accent; the Dutch, well I´ve always had a soft spot for them since I am half Dutch, but they also tend to be nice and down for a good time.
WORST: Americans (with notable exceptions). Another unfortunate stereotype. The real problem here is that the sample size is small. We meet Europeans and Canadians everywhere we go, but we´ve only met Americans in a few places. The real thing is that it seems Americans aren´t travelling here AS much. Most of the Americans we´ve met don´t speak Spanish, as in don´t even try, are loud, argumentative, and come off as ¨gringo feos¨, ugly gringos. The worst are certain retirees we´ve met who are living in Mexico or Central America, but seem to despise everything about the local culture. In the states, many expect that everyone should learn English if they live there. Yet these same types move to another country and do nothing to absorb themselves into the local culture. They view it as a cheaper retirement center, not an independent nation with a unique language and culture. The hope, the notable exceptions, are the adventurous Americans (perhaps like ourselves?) who have come to these countries in search of new experiences. They make the truly annoying ¨stupid Americans¨a little more bearable. These people have been really fun and have shared our opinion of other Americans behaviors, so we know we´re not alone and have hope for the future.

Public (Intracity) Transportation
BEST: Medellín, Colombia. Metro. Need I say more? Considering the traffic here is pretty bad (almost LA bad), the metro makes life quite nice.
Honorable Mention: Most cities, many have buses that have routes which are painted on the front window, so just find a bus that goes in your general direction. Examples of cities with ample buses and destinations: Mazatlan, San Salvador
WORST: Panama City, Panama. Actually they have really nice and ample busses but you need a card, they don´t use cash due to former robberies, and getting a card is diffucult and usually entails a multi-hour line.

Intercity Transportation
BEST: Mexico. The whole system is very organized and almost like flying. Almost every city has a central terminal that all intercity busses leave from, there is a set schedule with prices based on quality (more space, more money, etc) and often there is security present. The busses are nice, too, very high quality. Comfy seats, drink service, movies, bathrooms. It´s high class and though more expensive, worth the cost for the long, often overnight, rides.
Honorable Mention: El Salvador. Though all the busses are Chicken Busses aka old school busses, there are so many and the system is also very organized, and best of all, the busses are cheap. The country is small and the capital, San Salvador, is a hub that has a North/West terminal and an East/South terminal. Easy enough - if your bus is going north or west of the capital, you go to that terminal. There are also three different bus routes in San Salvador that connect the two terminals.
WORST: Honduras. The busses go through city hubs that are out of the way, break down, and get you to the border after the last bust from the border in the other direction has already gone.

BEST: Copan Ruinas Museo, Copan, Honduras. It´s almost better than the outdoor excavation since all the Stellae had been moved inside to protect them from the weather. Some of the most unique archeological sites we´ve seen.
Honorable Mention: Parque Explora, Medellín, Colombia. It´s meant for children, but it was way fun for us, too!
WORST: Santa Ana, El Salvador. We don´t remember the name of the musuem, but it is home to the Olmec Head and it was closed and I was incredibly dissapointed. THE OLMEC HEAD!

Free Activity
BEST: Free bottle of tequila and Piña Coladas, Ixtapa, Mexico. We sat through a time share pitch and at the end got free booze, ftw.
Honorable Mention: Mezcal Factory ¨tour¨, Oaxaca, Mexico. See our blog post on how to arrange your own free tour. Also, Going to the beach, all the beaches. It really doesn´t get old. The sun, the waves, the breeze, getting tan, reading...
WORST: Is there such a thing as a bad free activity? I think not!

Expensive Activities
BEST: El Mirador, Guatemala. We paid $250 a person, which doubled our budget, but it was well worth it. Hiking through the jungle, seeing the excavation sites still in the beginning phases, it really was a once in a lifetime experience.
Honorable Mention: The 7 Mole Buffet, Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is famous for having seven different types of traditional moles. We went to the buffet and tried them all. There was also this amazing mezcal mousse...
WORST: Pedro and Lola´s, Mazatlan, Mexico. One of the only ¨nice¨dinners we´ve gone out for, spent a ridiculous amount of money, and it wasn´t that great.
Honorable Mention (WORST): The boat ride from Panama to Colombia. Not because the boat ride was terrible, but because of the seasickness.
Local Booze
BEST: Caballito, Nicaragua. It´s SO CHEAP!! $1.75 for a bottle! It was cheaper than the soda we used to mix it! Thanks to Harry in León for introduction and thanks to the Noreen, Mandeep, and Guillame in San Juan del Sur for sharing 3 more bottles with us for a fun night!

BEST: Quetzeltenango (Xela), Guatemala. The mercado expands over several streets, into the streets. Local farmers sell all sorts of delicious and HUGE vegetables and fruits grown in rich volcanic soil.
Honorable Mention: Mazatlan, Mexico. The mercado in old town has everything in one place: local produce, imported, butchers and fish vendors, bakery, and grocery goods all on small kiosks run by families. Leon, Nicaragua also had a nice centralized setup.
WORST: Costa Rica. They seem to have lost the ¨mercado¨, there were only supermarkets. Produce often looked old and sad, prices were high, Wal-Mart was actually a better alternative.

Local Beer
BEST: Moza Bock, Guatemala. Dark and good.
Honorable Mention: Atlas, Panama. Also good.
WORST: Golden, El Salvador. Tastes like dirty water.

BEST: Mañana Madera, Boquete, Panama. Randy gave us a tour of his farm followed by the singular best cup of coffee I´ve ever had. Ever.
WORST: Instant Coffee. Here, in the countries that make the most amazing coffee, they all drink instant! WHY?!

BEST: Melaque, Mexico. Warm, but not to hot during the day, and cool, but not too cold, at night.
Honorable Mention: San Blas, Panama. Beautiful and Warm during the day and if you get to hot, just jump in the cool water! A nice breeze in the evenings.
WORST: Panama City, Panama AND Cartagena, Colombia. SO HOT and SO HUMID and just oppressive. It makes it hard to move or even think when it is that hot out.

Exotic Local Foods
BEST: Iguana, Nicaragua. Come one, you´ve all read the blog post! Honorable Mention: Grasshoppers, Oaxaca, Mexico. Chop ´em up with onions and peppers, and it´s just like pico de gallo!
WORST: Mayonnaise Sandwich, Guatemala. Nothing quenches the hunger of a 26 kilometer hike like a mayonnaise sandwich. (Please tell me you hear the sarcasm.)

City Cleanliness
BEST: Medellín, Colombia. There are public trash cans everywhere and very little litter for a city of this size. You see public cleaning crews everywhere.
Honorable Mention: Boquete, Panama. Just your average mountain town that everyone pitches in to make a pretty place. No litter!
WORST: San Salvador, El Salvador. Trash in the streets, no trash cans, people throw trash out the windows of moving busses. Overall, just yuck.

Touristy City
BEST: San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. While this might not be the most touristy city on our list, when you´re there, you know it´s a tourist destination. It felt almost like a European mountain town, with cafe´s and bakeries everywhere, and a wine and cheese festival the weekend we happened to be there. The city literally lights up and night while people walk on the pedestrain streets drinking hot chocolate.
Honorable Mention: Granada, Nicaragua. While definitely a touristy spot, with prices to sometimes match, the city definitely had two sides and it was fun to see them both. We also happened to be in town during a poetry festival, which gave the city a new vibrancy.
WORST: Playa Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Now, we happened to have a really good time there because of the people we met (you guess it, Canadians!), but the town itself is way over-priced and the beach is not that nice. It was too windy to stay out and the sand would get in your eyes. Nearby Playa Conchal is much prettier.

Non-Touristy City
BEST: León, Nicaragua. The city is really awesome. It´s got a very distinct culture, love of all the arts, and great food. Their city is not dependant on tourism, though there is plenty for a tourist to see and do. I would definitely advise you to visit it if you´ve never been!
Honorable Mention: Medellín, Colombia. Read our current posts, you´ll see why.
WORST: Suchitoto, El Salvador. We went there on a sort of whim when offered a free ride and offer to see some hidden waterfalls. The falls were cool until it got dark (though later overshadowed by the walls in Uvita, which are fabulous) but the rest of the town was somewhat meh. Wouldn´t necesarily advise you to add it to your itinerary.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Six Months on the Road

To think that just six months ago we were sitting in a Greyhound station in Los Angeles, waiting for our bus to arrive, and now we are in Medellin is truly amazing. At this point it´s almost hard to recall what was going through our minds waiting in that Greyhound station, fear, excitement, nervousness, and anticipation. That first bus was just a taste of what we would expect, by the time we got to El Paso, and switched buses to the bus that would actually take us across the border, we realized that we were the only two people on that bus who were US citizens. Immediately, upon crossing the border, culture shock set in. Things were different. There were a lot more people with scary looking guns, wild dogs roaming the streets, and the little voice in our heads repeating what practically everyone had said to us, "Don´t go to Mexico, you´ll die there!" or something along those lines. The fact that we basically got lost on our first day out of the country was both exciting and relieving as we ended up asking someone holding a machine gun for directions. To our surprise, he understood our barely passable Spanish and helpfully pointed us in the right direction.

This was our first encounter in what exemplifies the general attitude and friendliness shown towards others in Latin America. Keep in mind we were in a big city, not generally considered a tourist destination and we were asking a machine-gun wielding teenager for help. I can only imagine what would happen if someone asked a New Yorker for directions in broken English. I think it would be something like, "Can´t you see that I´m wahking here." We have literally had people call their friends to help us get directions. It is amazing how excited people are to know that we are coming to visit their country, especially in the areas that don´t get a lot of tourists. We can´t count the number of times that we´ve been graciously helped by people who keep us from getting off the bus in the wrong place, or telling us not to bring a backpack to certain neighborhoods, etc.

Another interesting aspect of our journey has been the amazing work ethic of the locals. It seems as though as soon as we left the states, there was a minor parade of people coming onto the bus at every stop, selling everything from food to flashlights to axes to really neat looking mechanical pencils. We have had guitarists playing music on the back of the bus for tips, even a guy selling fresh pizza! People have found some very ingenious ways of earning a living. Here in Colombia there is a small army of people with cell phones chained to their belts selling minutes. It appears that they buy minutes in bulk, and then sell them to you for cheaper than you could buy them yourself and they make a small profit. Everybody has a phone here, but many people seem to use them only to recieve calls. There is also a much greater sense of conservation, both for environmental reasons as well as monetary. In nearly every country we have been the dish soap is not liquid, it´s in a sort of solid tub and you rub the sponge against it. Apparently it´s significantly cheaper, uses less water, and is just as effective.

Moving on to what it´s been like travelling for six months. We have come to realize that we have a distinct style. We normally get somewhere and take our own walking tour that first day. Depending on the place we will go to musuems or other touristy spots for the next few days, and then we try to hang out and meet some locals. That may be in a bar or coffee shop, or just bumping into someone on the bus. We also realized that we packed a lot lighter than nearly every other traveller we meet. We have a 55 liter backpack for both of us, which separates into a large 40 liter backpack and a 15 liter daypack. The daypack is a little smaller than the backpack I used in middle school. We also have another 15 liter daypack which folds into itself, it normally only gets used when we are doing long hikes and each need a daypack to carry food and water. We have met travellers who are each carrying in excess of 60-70 liters, which is quite a bit to carry around, especially when navigating a chicken bus. Occasionally we come across people using a standard suitcase as well, that´s always entertaining when it gets tossed on top of the bus with giant bags of beans and the livestock. Despite our light packing, there are still some things that we have yet to use, and could probably get rid of. We originally brought some bug spray for our clothes, but got rid of it in Panama since we never used it. Turns out that after you wash your clothes it goes away anyway, so it probably was something I just bought to make my parents happy. We have a mosquito net, however we have never used it. We only went to one place where it was even needed due to outdoor beds, however they provided mosquito nets anyway and we ended up not even staying in that particular hostel. We also have two inflatable pillows. We have used those a few times, however we may end up getting rid of them as a crumpled up jacket would probably work just fine. A word on footwear. My sandals broke in El Salvador. My five-fingers were annhilated after hiking to Mirador. I replaced both in El Salvador. The shoes I bought cost $4.39 and where purchased mainly because they fit me, turned out they weren´t of the highest quality. The sandals were two sizes too small, but for $5 I just needed something to get to the beach and back. After traveling through two more countries I finally found a pair of Keens, which are probably the ugliest things in all of Central America, but they fit, and they are comfortable. People of normal size would have no trouble buying shoes or any other clothing, but finding a size 13 shoe is almost impossible. While we really like our Icebreaker clothing, they don´t seem to stand the test of time. Granted, we are really wearing the hell out of these clothes - only 2 shirts in my case, 4 for Sarah, but the Icebreaker shirts seem to perform poorly, especially compared to the Under Armour. My shirts have quite a few holes and certain stains seem to not come out of Sarah´s.(You spill ketchup ONCE!) Sarah´d sweatshirt is starting to tear apart at the seams. We have used my pocketknife almost daily, as knives in hostel kitchens can often be of lower quality, and we find ourselves eating a lot of fruit that needs to be cut up.

That brings me to my next point. Costs of everything vary significantly throughout the countries we visited, but pretty much across the board local fruits and vegetables are very affordable. Today we bought five pounds of potatoes for about 75 cents, but imported oranges cost as much as they would in your local grocery. We have bought loads of fresh fruits for very affordable prices. That said, we have definitely noticed price changes caused by local tourism. In some places some of the locals have even said that they are thinking about leaving because it is too expensive for them to live there. We have had a lot of fun interacting with local businesses. At one point, we walked into a hotel and asked how much a room costs, and waited patiently while the three employees laughed to themselves for about three minutes before quoting a price. We ended up not staying there. We have had taxi rides in non-touristy places cost as low as 35 cents, and taxi rides in more touristy places cost as much as 16 dollars.

People are almost always shocked to find out that we are American and yet we speak Spanish or in some cases other languages. Apparently Americans have a generally poor reputation as tourists who don´t take the time to learn a lick of Spanish, but pretty much everyone we meet appreciates that we at least make an effort. It obviously makes it easier to communicate and people are interested in foreigners, why are we here, what are we doing? Just a few days ago after talking to a guy in a restaurant and hearing about our journey, he explained where to find good deals on furnished apartments should we decide to live here in Medellin.

Travelling for a long time is a big commitment. We have no home, we have very little belongings. The experience of meeting new people, both locals and other travellers alike is something that really can´t be replaced. If you, our loyal reader has ever considered undertaking such a journey, I would recommend doing it sooner rather than later. I know when I was originally contemplating this, many of my friends, and especially coworkers asked me if I had considered the financial ramifications. How I would be giving up a year´s worth of income, how would it look on a resume, etc etc. At the end of the day, I realized that I can always make more money, I can´t make more time. The adventures continue!!!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Continuing Adventures in Medellin!!!

It's really amazing how far Medellin has come. To imagine that 20 years ago hitmen patrolled the streets on motorcycles, and that Pablo Escobar was the seventh richest man in the world is mind-blowing. Now this city is run efficiently with modern schools, libraries, and eco-friendly public transportation. Today we learned that the Coca-Cola delivery truck is electric! (That helps explain why it is silent.) Due to the geography of the city, some places are easier to get than others, or so you would think. The ciy is laid out north to south along a river with mountains on either side. The neighborhoods extend up into the mountainside. The metro, along with many bus lines head north-south along or parallel to the river. However, climbing up some of these mountains can be quite challenging, Medellin came up with a better way.

Here we have Sarah riding the MetroCable up into the clouds. Aside from providing an amazing view of the city, this extension of the metro is an affordable way for literally thousands of people to get to work everyday. The price of the MetroCable is included in the regular price of a metro ticket, about $1.00 US. However, on Sunday, we took the extension of the MetroCable for another two bucks or so and went to the very top. Here there is the Arvi national park. We sort of took a tour with one of the ladies who works at our hostel and Arthur, a traveller from Norway. Somehow we lost the tour and ended up wandering around the park for a few hours. It has free entrance for the bulk of the area, there is another part of the park where you can go ziplining, eat lunch, etc. We had an enormous steak for lunch which we shared and could still barely finish before we headed home.

On Monday we headed downtown on the Metro to go to Parque Explora only to discover that it is closed every monday. We decided to wander around the area for a bit near the university. We decided we would go to the Museo de Antioquia, where many Botero works are housed. We started walking through a neighborhood which seemed fine during the day, although at night we probably would not have wanted to flash our camera around. Even so, there are a lot of green areas, and we walked by a open air workout space with some people getting some exercise. After walking to the next metro station we decided to take the metro to the musuem since it was really hot and we still had a way to go. There are numerous Botero works on exhibit at the musuem, including the piece above depicting Escobar's death. In the plaza outside there are a lot of sculptures in Botero's unique style. There are also a lot of people hanging out, seems like a popular place to meet friends, lots of street vendors as well. We also stepped into the cultural musuem around the corner but decided we were a bit overmusuemed, we will probably check it out in a few days.

Tuesday we finally made it to Parque Explora, where we saw Nemo! This musuem is geared more towards children with a ton of interactive exhibits. We spent the day racing against armadillos and elephants. We learned about Archimedes' drill(google it). They also have a vivarium and aquarium. Given our history with reptiles, the vivarium was something of a letdown, but I'd imagine that the average Colombian doean't have an albino ball python waiting for them at home. The aquarium was very well done, there was even a multi-story tank with a tree growing in it along with a bunch of swimming fish. Oddly enough the musuem is so big it has something of a food court, including a Dunkin' Donuts; no we did not eat there. Oh, and Sarah might have gotten eaten by a dinosaur.

Today we went to one of the suburbs, Envigado. It seems like it was the upper class area before Poblado, there are a lot of nice buildings that are a bit older, in varying states of repair. In the next few days we will visit a few other neiborhoods, and try to take a Pablo Escobar tour. Stay tuned for upcoming reflective posts as we hit the 6-month mark of our journey.

Friday, April 20, 2012


Hello avid followers of the epic adventures of the Shapiros!!! After our lengthy journey from Cartagena we arrived here in Medellin, the city of eternal spring, early on Tuesday morning. We were surprised by the price of the bus tickets, $118,000 each, more expensive than almost every other bus trip we have taken, although it was about 14 hours. After being on the bus for about 45 minutes we realized that the added cost was most likely due to the extra fuel used to run the air conditioner. Everyone on the bus was wearing a jacket and had blankets. Sarah was bundled up in her jacket, my jacket, thermal leggings, and was still shivering. Anyways, we watched a few movies and arrived in Medellin around 8:00 AM. The bus let us off in one of the northern metro stations, and we got onto the metro and rode to Poblado. The city of Medellin follows a river from north to south and the metro is very efficient with frequent trains and modern, handicapped-friendly facilities. When we arrived in Poblado we did our usual backpacker´s tour, wandering around to local hostels and hotels. We settled on one that was closer to the metro station and a short walk to the Zona Rosa on Calle 10. Unfortunately, the mattresses were about as hard as granite and after two nights we decided we had to move. We have since moved to another hostel in the Parque Lleras area, right in the Zona Rosa with plenty of trendy bars and clubs around. So it´s a little noiser, but at least our backs are comfortable. Poblado is a very wealthy area of Medellin, supposedly during the reign of Pablo Escobar, all the wealthy residents of Medellin (called Paisas) moved to Poblado to escape the hitmen and drug violence. There are troves of tall apartment and condo buildings with nice pools, and plenty of BMWs in the parking lot. On wednesday we went to the Museo de Agua, the local water musuem, which is across the street from the Parque de Pies Descalzos. The water musuem is put on by the EPM, which is basically Medellin´s public works group. The musuem is very modern, and is staffed by friendly, knowledgeable guides. We ended up with two guides who spoke passable English, which wasn´t really necessary, but I think they wanted to practice. It is a musuem about water and water conservation, where Medellin gets its water, and is very high tech. The elevators are controlled by iPads, and many of the exhibits have motion sensors and elaborate computer systems to aid in the explanations. There is a really cool floating orb that can have different things projected on it, like the sun and different planets overlaid to do size comparisons. Sarah was dissapointed that Pluto was no longer included in that exhibit (though later, she said she was glad Pluto was no longer a planet - it makes Gustav Holst´s suite complete!). Across the street from the water musuem is the Parque de Pies Descalzos, or the barefoot park. Here paisas are encouraged to kick off their shoes and hang out in some small pools and a large sandy area. Unfortunately, on the day we went it was rather windy so we didn´t go too far into the water. We also wandered around the centro a little bit and took in all the art and architecture. Apparently during the 80´s there was a local ordinance that required all new buildings to put at least 5% of their budget into art, so there are a lot of interesting sculptures. Yesterday, we went to the Museo del Castillo. This is a European style castle, built by a German family almost a hundred years ago that looks over the city, and is also located in Poblado. This wealthy family collected a lot of art, as well as various peculiarities. They have a collection of over 650 spoons, venetian glass, etc. It also displayed some of their personal effects from that time like an old polaroid camera and their old passports. As we walked back to our hostel, Sarah decided to stop at the local mall, which turned out to be a seven story monster - each floor had 4 ¨plazas¨ each of which was about the size of the WestSide Pavillion (old side) and the bottom floor had a big open courtyard in the middle of the plazas with a large play place for kids, including a ferris wheel! This really is the Beverly Hills of Colombia, this mall had some very upscale stores, the food court had a Boba shop, and now Sarah is convinced that she wants to live here. As we speak she is looking at the real estate section of the classifieds. Today we may head out to another musuem, or check out a few more places in the centro, we will update you soon. Pictures to follow after a quick recharge of the digital camera. Sarah´s note: Matt has been talking about Medellin ever since we began planning this trip! He has ¨known¨ all along that this is where we will want to live one day. The irony? Medellin reminds me a lot of Los Angeles! (Except for no movie biz and better public transportation and allegedly better public education, I need to check on that). The Centro is so much like Downtown, traffic included, and Poblado is sort of a mix between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica! Overall, the city is comprised of several small neighborhoods that blend into one another that each have their own personality - just like LA! Some neighborhoods are flat and grided, some are hilly/mountainous, and some are river-front, instead of ocean front. The people are very fashion concious and cultured, and plastic surgery is big here. After all the complaining that Matt does about LA, I find it hilarious that the city he has been obsessed with is South America´s LA! It is a great city, so far, and I am excited to see more!

Monday, April 16, 2012

We are Mud People!!!

So here we are, at the local mud volcano outside of Cartagena. It isn't actually a volcano, but a mountain of mud. The mud is made up of ancient and decomposing plant matter which slowly bubbles to the surface. Due to the ongoing chemical decomposition, the mud is warm, and very thick. It's impossible to sink in this mud because it is so dense, almost like the opposite of quicksand. Massages are available for a very reasonable $3000 COP. We would definitely recommend the mud volcano to anyone who is coming to Cartagena. The next day we went to another musuem in town, the Museo de la Inquisicion. This musuem had many replicas and originals of the tools used during the inquisition, as well as some other interesring exhibits. We learned how suspected witches were weighed and measured to determine their witchiosity, as well as the questions they were asked. There were also several torturing devices on display, none of which looked very comfortable. We especially enjoyed the device which removed your leg bones from your legs while you were still living. The musuem also had some exhibits about the indigenous pre-Colombian people, as well as a temporary exhibit about a Colombian painter.
This evening we are going to catch the night bus to Medellin. It is a 12-14 hour ride, so we should get in sometime tomorrow morning. Medellin looks to be very interesting, once the stronghold of Colombian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, it appears to have made a miraculous recovery after his death in the early 90's. We have heard that 40% of all government expenditure goes to education, which no doubt has played a large role in the city's renaissance. Since we are about three weeks ahead of schedule at this point, we will most likely be taking an extended stay there, but we will keep you posted!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Modern Art

Here you have it, my favorite piece of modern art, the elephant man meets giant reptile/crocodile. Since we last wrote, the team has continued our epic adventure in South America. Sarah came down with a slight cough in Panama and on the boat ride here, and given her history with Panamanian fungal flesh eating lung diseases, we went to the pharmacy and bought some cough medicine. Later that night we said our goodbyes to the bulk of our amigos from Australia, Great Britain, Switzerland, Outer Mongolia, and Zimbabwe. After that fiesta, we realized Sarah might have been having a minor allergic reaction to something. After a quick internet search, we discovered that her cough medicine was basically a stronger, European variant of poison ivy, needless to say we threw it away. We also went to the Museo de Arte Moderno, where the above photo came from. This musuem is a collection of largely Latin-American works, including a section devoted to Enrique Grau. Definitely worth the $2000 peso entrance fee. We also met a local and talked about some of the recent goings-ons in Colombia while watching some street dancers. We also found some excellent street vendors and have been eating delicious arepas, chorizo, and fruit in a bag. An arepa is a kind of very thick corn pancake served fresh of the grill with butter and cheese inside, greasy deliciousness. This is in addition to the standard tipico fare including liver, tongue, steak, and a healthy serving of beans and rice. Yesterday we went to the gold musuem and saw some very interesting ancient gold pieces. We also watched a video about how the Zenu indians used to irrigate their land thousands of years ago. We also went to a very large fort yesterday afternoon but determined that it was too hot for us to climb to the top of it, so we just had a bottle of water at a local tienda and took pictures of the fort like good tourists. We have also managed to walk around the old city on the old city walls, as well as purchase a new camera since the old one died on the boat ride here. This afternoon we head to a mud volcano to take a mud bath, and supposedly Obama is coming into town today. The city is much emptier than normal today and the police presence is notable. While writing this, at least 2 fighter jets have flown over head - perhaps the president is arriving! Here in Colombia even the riot police are models!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Panama by the Numbers and an Epic Voyage to Colombia

Hello again, loyal readers of We are back on dry land although we both seem to think the ground is still rocking. We arrived in Cartagena yesterday, and were greated by the Sixth Summit of the Americas, so there is extra security and police around town, as well as a giant CNN boat! Apparently B. Hussein Obama will be here in a few days as well as the other heads of state from the Americas, so security is pretty tight. We already are enjoying Colombia as there are plenty of streetside food vendors, and a huge meal can be had for $2-3. But first, Panama by the numbers. We spent a total of 25 days in Panama incuding our time on the boat to Colombia. We entered the country with $199 and left witth $217, and withdrew a total of $2120. That comes to $84.08/day, significantly higher than any other country. It really came down to our mode of transportation for leaving the country. We basically had two options, sail or fly. Both cost about the same, but if we flew we would have ended up on the wrong side of Colombia and had to backtrack. At the time sailing seemed more attractive since we got to see more, spend some time on the sea, and learn a little about boats. There are no roads connecting Panama and Colombia and to cross through the jungle is not recommended due to an ongoing paramilitary presence as well as poisonous snakes and other jungle dangers. We decided on taking the boat. Had we managed to just walk across the border, like we have everywhere else, our daily spend would have only been $49/day. All in all, Panama is slightly cheaper than Costa Rica, but still more expensive than most other Central American countries.

This is our boat, the Independence. Our captain, Michelle, was pretty much what you would expect from a reformed pirate, speaking about six languages poorly and a little scruffy around the edges. Our boat had he capacity to handle about 24 passengers and 4 crew, but our voyage only had 12 passengers. It had air conditioned cabins, refrigerators and freezers, and most of the comforts of home(chuck norris movies on vhs). Needless to say after a few hours, Sarah became very ill. We spent that afternoon on one of the San Blas islands, where the indigenous Kuna Yala live. They had prepared a dance for our arrival. 

There are hundred of islands, some with just a family, some like this one with a school, solar panels, and the occasional satellite dish. We learned about their culture and how they are related to some of the tribes of central Colombia. The next day we went to a few more islands, where the locals were kind enough to sell us some coconuts to drink, etc. Sarah bought a bracelet. After two days on the islands we hit the high seas and headed for Colombia. 

We celebrated Passover in typical Shapiroadventures style with lobster and matzah on the high seas. These last few days were a little rough for us and some of the other members of the voyage really had a tough time keeping food down, but our captain kept reassuring us that the waves were much smaller than normal. We finally managed to make it to Colombia where our crew took care of the immigration formalities. Yesterday afternoon we took a little walk around the old city, and this morning we bought a new digital camera since the one we have finally bit the dust. The internet in our hostel is a bit slow, so we probably won't put up a lot of pictures onto facebook until the next place, or possibly late at night. ¡Salud!


Monday, April 9, 2012


We are now in Cartagena, Colombia. Full update to follow, first we need to get our land legs.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A week in Panamá

Hello, dear readers!  Nearly a week has passed since our last blog and our days have been filled with great activities and good times.  I'll begin with El Valle.  

We started in the morning by heading to the Nispero Zoo, home to the Golden Frogs which are endangered and are known to live in only a small region of Panamá.  There were also many different kinds of pheasants which were beautiful and a two-toed sloth which was very friendly.  I think I want a pet two-toed sloth now.  

We then took a very intricately painted chicken bus to the painted stone, a centuries old petroglyph that may be a map of some sort.  We hiked up to a few waterfalls, as well.  We ate lunch at a fonda, a local cafe, and had some delicious chicken and rice.  

The next day we headed into Panama City and grabbed a cab to the Mamallena hostal.  It is quite hot in the city and very humid, so we didnt feel like moving very fast.  We went grocery shopping and walked around our neighborhood and not much more.  On Saturday, we did laundry and decided to head to the Albrook Mall at the central bus terminal to replace my pants which had a wardrobe malfunction.   We had a lovely time walking around the incredibly large mall in the air conditioning.  At out hostel, we had asked which bus we should take to return to the hostel and the girl had told us to take a bus that said "tumba muerte", but we took the wrong "tumba muerte" bus and ended up in a very unsafe neighborhood.  Luckily, there were some national police who helped us find a cab.  Apparently, we were so far away that the first few cabs didn't want to take us!  We got home safely and made some dinner and drinks to end the day.

Sunday was Palm Sunday and the whole city was basically shut down, so we spent the day relaxing and playing April Fool's jokes on our parents.  We also made friends with two Australian brothers staying at our hostel.  Monday, we went together with the Aussie's to the Miraflores locks.  We saw two large cargo boats and a passenger/tour boat go through the locks, which are really quite amazing.  We walked through the museum, which included an aquarium and insect display of local wildlife, and saw a short film on the history of the canal, which was somewhat propagandist.

After the canal, we went to Casco Viejo, the old part of town, and saw the Golden Altar, many ruins, and some beauitful art-deco style buildings.  We then walked along Avenida Balboa for a view of the downtown highrises.  It was a lot of walking and a very hot day, so we ended the tour with some Milkshakes to cool down.

While we were originally planning to stay in Panama City for passover, I have had little luck making contact with the various Jewish communities here.  Matt and I have decided to do head out on a boat to Colombia and do a mini-Seder on the sea.  We made our reservation on the "independence" and we set sail from Portobelo on the 5th, and then we will be at sea for 5 days before arriving at Cartagena, Colombia, stopping at the San Blas islands on the way.   Needless to say, we will be out of contact while at sea.

We went to the Multiplaza Mall in search of a kosher super market which no longer exists.  Luckily, the new market had matzah and Manishewitz, and that combined with some hard-boiled eggs, and charoset fixins (apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and the afore mentioned Manishewitz) will be the core of our seder.  (Matt has promised me that we'll have lamb next year!).  

We're going to upload the rest of the photos today and I'm sure we'll have plenty after our boat trip!  Happy Passover and Happy Easter, dear readers!