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.