Friday, July 29, 2016

The Little Things

The United State is a country of excess. Everything comes in bulk, you can by toilet paper that lasts months, a cereal box can feed 10, grocery stores often contain all the medicine, toiletries, cleaning supplies you would ever need. It is easy to get things. 

In Colombia things work a bit differently and below are some examples.

Drugs. I needed drugs bad. My allergies were out of control when we walked to Minca, a tiny mountain town sitting approximately 800 m above Santa Marta. I spent the better half of our five hour walk, sneezing and wiping the snot dripping from my nose onto my shirt. When I got to Minca, I was lucky to find they had a farmacia. However, instead of buying a box of medicine, I bought my medicine by the pill. So I paid for 40 pills (~ $4 USD, just to be safe) and ended up needing only three where afterward my allergies miraculously dissipated.

ATM machines. There are no ATM machines within 2-3 hours from the reserve. So you better travel with a wad of cash (preferably stuffed in different locations in your bags, in case you get robbed) until you can find the next ATM.

Toilet paper. Toilet paper cannot be flushed in Colombia, you have to dispose of it in the wastebasket.
You can buy toilet paper by the single roll. I generally keep a plastic baggie of toilet paper in my backpack for emergencies.

Lip gloss. I could NOT find lip gloss anywhere in Colombia, I really wanted some chapstick with a little bit of color so I didn’t feel so blasé every time I went into Santa Marta or was in public for a few days. Instead of easily finding chapstick in an aisle in the grocery store the make-up is in locked cases and you must ask for assistance to pick out what you want.

Power. The power goes out almost every day at the lodge. The power was recently out for 48 hours. Luckily we have generators, but for the most part we hang out and play a lot of Dominos (my new favorite game, seriously it’s awesome!).

Google. It is impossible to google anything here, even with WIFI. It has made doing research really difficult. Luckily I have an amazing team of undergrads back at Texas A&M who have been carrying my heavy workload on my behalf.

Mail. No, I cannot get mail here.  I live on a mountain where people still use mules to transport building equipment.

Radar. Weather stations? Yeah right. We discovered (the difficult way) that it rains almost every afternoon starting from around 1 – 4 pm and sometimes even longer. So we generally avoid going out during those times.

Transportation. The best mode of transportation up and down the mountain is by foot or by motorbike. We rode motorbikes up from Minca (20 km below the reserve) and it took a little over an hour. It took us 5 hours to walk down to Minca two days prior. While the motorbikes are faster they can be extremely terrifying. The mountain roads are rocky and huge trucks tear around blind corners. Once you get to the last 10 km the road becomes so bumpy I generally fly off the seat of the motorbike, clinging to the young Colombian male driving me up the road for dear life.

Roads. A new road was paved between Santa Marta and Minca making the trip an easy 30+ minutes. This summer there was a dedication to a new bride built in Minca. The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, came for the dedication of the new bridge. THE PRESDIENT. That’s like Obama coming to celebrate a new bridge built in Arling, Idaho (yes this is a real place)…So random!
*I will note that apparently this new bridge is part of a development plan in Colombia to increase access to remote regions, they are even going to pave the road halfway up the mountain toward El Dorado, which is likely to increase visitor rates and development even further. I have mixed feelings about it.

Construction. Like I eluded to above, in order to get building materials to and from the roads you must use mules or motorbikes. Both are in high demand at El Dorado Reserve where they are building a new restaurant overlooking Cienaga. There are also a few giant trucks that send large materials up, one of them has a sticker on the front that says “Poower truck”, I chuckle every time I see it.

Food. One of my favorite things about the U.S. is the incredible diversity of people and cultures; this diversity leads to an assortment of culinary cuisine. Even College Station has delicious dining options to choose from. Colombia does Colombian food well. Arepas, queso, chicken, pork, and patacones (same as tostones) fill the menus. The jugo (fresh squeezed fruit juice) is amazing and I could drink that every single day. But the cuisine gets incredibly tiresome after you realize every meal is rice, chicken, and some veggies (lettuce and onion, sautéed zuchinnis, rotate, repeat). After this trip, I don’t want to see another arepa/chicken/fish/potatoes for a year.

Cheese. I love cheese. Unfortunately Colombia’s cheese selection is not the best, but its not the worst! (Cuba was the worst). Here there seems to be one main type of queso. It is a big, medium firm block of white cheese called well queso. We brought some on our three day trip to San Pedro, and Jose Luis said we didn’t need to even refrigerate it (I shuddered at the thought slightly). We ate this block of white medium firm cheese for three days. Yuck.

Water. Colombians can drink the water from the streams. During our backpacking trip, I filled up my camelback and a nalgene, equaling a whopping 4 L of water. Whenever I wanted to refill, I had to use potentially expired iodine tablets and wait 30+ minutes to drink my water. Miraculously I did not get sick. Part of me wants to just go ahead and drink the stream water here – it is supposed to be very clean…

Wine. The wine in Colombia is dismal, to get the good stuff you need to pick out the Chilean or Argentinian wine- even then a decent bottle can be a bit pricey ~ 30,000 COP (~ $10, OK I am used to Safeway wine discounts in CA!).

Beer. I heart Aguila. It is probably the most popular Colombian beer in Norte costeño. You see Aguila flags with the gold eagle emblem waving over corner stores. It’s a light beer, the Colombian bud light, and is often enjoyed at various times throughout the day, easier to get than water. It is my favorite beer and tastes quite spectacular the minute you enter the heat of Santa Marta. The other popular beer is Club Colombia. Try getting a craft beer in Colombia? I’ve had two. One from Sierra Nevada (Happy Jaguar and Happy Toucan – I thought it tasted like horse pee) and another from Bogota (Bogota Brewing Company) which has a couple decent brews. When I asked Daniela, my Colombian field assistant, about these two beer companies she goes “Nikki, I have no idea what you’re talking about”.

Champeta. This is the Colombian style of dance and appears to be a fusion of reggaton and twerking. I still am not exactly quite sure how it is supposed to be danced, because each version I have seen is slightly different. But I am excited to learn and master the art!

You can always tell when it is a Friday or Saturday night because the champeta, vallenato, and bachata reverberates across the dark mountain valleys, attempting to lure the Toro from its hiding place.

Check out Sofia Vergara's Aguila commercial here...she's no stranger to bikini commercials for Colombia.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Joyeria y Mochilas

Conservation is not just about saving a species, although, that is often at the basis of my research. Natural resource users (ie the people living in the landscape) are often most affected by conservation initiatives, which can be good or bad for their livelihoods. In order to combat some of the negative impacts western organizations can have on local communities, ProAves - the organization I am working with this summer - has developed a “Women for Wildlife” campaign, where they source jewelry from local Colombian women. This campaign is used to empower women and provide them with a source of income and economic standing aside from tending to the household (which in Colombia, usually means watching over many generations). As a desire to help these women sell their products, I ventured to their homes to photograph their goods.
* We would like to create a sustainable long term plan for selling these goods, but as I am only here for 5 weeks this was what seemed most reasonable to me for now. 

The road up to the top of the mountain, where I am living this summer, is speckled with homes popping out of dense forest, mostly in the form of café fincas (coffee farms). Local Colombian families of 4 or more usually squeeze into 2 open air rooms, where a kitchen is located in another building or off to the side- also generally open air. The local women in the region sell coffee, mochilas (traditional Colombian bags – everyone wears one, including the men) and jewelry. 

Ok FRIENDS! Here is what I ask of you. Below are some pictures of Mochilas, necklaces, bracelets etc. All of these are made in Colombia by local Colombian women, using recycled materials OR natural materials. If you would like to purchase one of these items please let me know. Since I will need to transport these items back from Colombia and then ship them, I am asking for a $3 processing fee for the shipments ($3 USD will be added to each item).

It’s never too early to start thinking of Christmas gifts (as my mother taught me) for your mothers, girlfriends, wives, sisters, children, nieces, etc! While most of these are geared toward women, remember mochilas are for men too! If you see something you like but not in the color, chances are it’s here and I just didn’t photograph it. Or if you trust my opinion enough, let me know what you like, and I will pick out something for you :) 


The Tagua seed is a large seed that is used by local women to create the jewelery you see here. It is cut, polished and died and made into beautiful jewelry. Most items from El Dorado Reserve are made of Tagua.

Other seeds used are Acai, like the Acai berry which is so trendy in nutrition these days.

I have listed the prices in COP (colombian pesos) and USD dollars. You can pay me through Venmo, Paypal, or Wells Fargo SurePay ( I have limited space in my bags so earlier requests will fare better.

** Some prices I have forgotten, so if interested in a item, please inquire and I will let you know how much it costs!

Dona Maria and Dona Sofia, makers and sellers of many of these products


COP 7,000, USD $ 2.50
COP 12,000: USD $4 (/bag)

USD $15-40 depending on size and fabric

Various types of Mochilas range COP 

COP 60,000- 70,000, USD $20 -30 (depending on size)

COP 60,000: USD $20

COP big (60,000) USD $20, small (40,000): USD $15

Kiddie Mochilas! COP (20-40,000 need to inquire)

COP big 60,000 small 40,000 USD $15-20

Recycled plastic bags USD $15-$25

Close up of more mochilas


Parrot beaded necklace
Acai seed necklace (red one available at El Dorado)

Parrot bracelets

Earrings made from Tagua and beads

Below is from the El Dorado reserve and all prices are only listed in USD:
Bracelets range from $12- $25


Necklaces range from $15- $40

Tagua rings $15

More earrings available upon request, top right is the Tagua seed

Acai semillas and tagua necklaces


Jewelry case


Scarf and hat

Goras for winter!

One more of Dona Maria and Dona Sofia, I love this one :) 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Cats of Colombia y Otras Cosas

I’ve been an animal lover my entire life. Whenever I travel one of my favorite things is being around animals, hell I’ve even made a career of it. However, like much of the world aside from the U.S.,  Latin America has very different standards when it comes to animal welfare. In Colombia dogs and cats, full of mange with distended bellies (likely due to worms) roam the streets. Because of my natural gravity toward furry creatures I constantly try to get as close as I can to them, often petting their mangey heads before enjoying a meal I eat with my unwashed hands. I began photographing the cats of Colombia, because I thought it had a nice ring to it. Plus cats are funny creatures, there is so much hype around dogs (Almost every dog has its own Instagram account) but what about these sassy little felines? Check out some of my favorites below. Don’t worry I’ve included dogs too, because well duh, they’re still my favorite.



Santa Marta pup (Brett- lots of Anna look alikes here)


Apparently the only "breed" of Colombian dog left, I thought it was a beagle/bassett hound
One Daniela's neighbors pups

 San Pedro dog gang

The mula and I in San Pedro

We've seen this pup following some bikers up the mountain and down at a waterfall in Minca, 25-27 km below where we first saw him!

Pocos de los Perros

Lucas – Lucas was a dog in San Lorenzo, he loved Pablo (San Lorenzo field station manager). He would just sink into pure doggy bliss when Pablo rubbed his ears. Lucas tried to bite me, despite me feeding him cheese. He was extremely scared of new people and very distrusting. It was my mistake to think I could maybe pet him when he snapped. Here’s the only picture I snapped of him.

Roger -  Roger is Daniela’s abuelas dog. He is a feisty little guy and loved everyone the minute we came in to the house. He definitely has loads of fleas.

Leon- Leon is Roberto’s dog and best friend. He is just two years old but has lived a life harder than most dogs four times his age. He is also very timid and starving, which makes for an uncomfortable match. Initially he would growl at us after we tossed him food because he wanted more. He hardly took his tail, which had an open wound on the end of it, out from beneath his legs. He even killed a skunk and Roberto hung it on a tree outside the finca because he didn’t know what to do with it. Thus the entire time we were there Leon smelled like skunk. Leon would come when called and let you rub his ears and face, he was a sweet thing, and I imagine with a bit of food would be a completely pleasant pup. *sidenote along with having no bathrooms/showers/places to wash hands well for 3 days I now smelled like skunk too.

Adventure cat- Adventure cat came with us down to the waterfall. AC rides on your shoulder and backpack. AC is a cat-dog. I like AC.

These three giant pastor aleman or German Shepards guard one of the local finca’s. They seem to be outside the gate quite frequently and are not huge, young, strong, and not well-trained or socialized. Daniela and I, both animal lovers, talked gently to the dogs that were barking at us (coo-ing with hola’s). Eventually they came over and wagged their tails while we pet them. They attempted a few playful nips (a playful nip for a german shepard could literally take your arm off), while we tried to calm them so we could pass. After a few minutes the owner rode up on his motorbike and asked in Spanish if the dog had bitten us. Seriously?! He then shoo-ed the dogs back down to their finca. We’ve come across these dogs twice now, this one pictured – the largest and most playful looks most wolf-like. Hence the Twilight reference (If you don’t get it, you’re amongst the lucky ones, terrible book series).


*I encourage those of you thinking about getting a pet to look at your local shelter. There are a lot of loving creatures waiting to find their best friend, just like Roberto and Leon.