Explore Colombia: A Day in Bogotá

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus for the past few weeks, but I have a good excuse!  I was scouting new story ideas on my first visit to South America, my first trip back to the Kentucky Derby since my days as a Derby Princess, and an afternoon hike exploring a waterfall in the Red River Gorge. All of that plus a little bit of down time and work in between has kept me from the keyboard.  Now, I’m back and really excited to share my visit to Bogotá, Colombia.

Bogotá is an enormous city.  Did you know that it’s one of the five largest cities in the American continents, just after Mexico City, Mexico and New York, New York?  The city is home to approximately 8 million residents, not including daily commuters.  I had no idea it was that big until I visited in April as part of a trip with Gate1Travel.  With that many people, you can imagine that Bogotá has no shortage of places to go and things to see.

We began our day in Bogotá with a walking tour through La Candelaría, the oldest portion of the city.  This area is home to the President of Colombia, the Colombian Congress, and many historic buildings.

Although I loved the architecture and history of La Candelaría, my favorite part of this area was our stop in the Museo Botero.  Fernando Botero was a native Colombian who rose to fame through his unique style of painting and sculpture.  No matter the subject, Botero always painted him, her, or it as larger than life and a little overweight. He painted dancers, domestic scenes, animals, and politicians alike, all in vibrant colors and great detail.  To give back to the nation that raised him, Botero founded the Museo Botero so that everyone can enjoy his masterpieces, all for free.  The museum is full of his finest pieces, as well as those of European masters Picasso, Renoir, Monet, and Dali, among others.  It’s housed in a beautiful mansion that was once a single-family home.

Our next stop in La Candelaría was Museo de Oro, the gold museum.  While Museo de Oro does live up to its name by showcasing beautiful works of gold, at the heart, it showcases much more than art and precious metals.  Colombia is the proud home of several native South American tribes, many of whom still reside in the nation’s countryside.  Gold has long been a treasured metal in Colombian tribal culture, where it plays a central role in important rituals.  Museo de Oro’s three floors have areas dedicated to each of the main native Colombian tribes.  Each exhibit tells a story with its design, and Karen, our Gate1 guide for the day, helped each story come alive by providing her own anecdotes.  Perhaps my favorite feature of the exhibits was the use of shadows to create a silhouette so that visitors can imagine how pieces of jewelry are worn together for a tribal event.

From the Museo de Oro, we took a short walk to have a mid-morning coffee break at Juan Valdez Coffee Shop, which I learned is the Colombian equivalent to Starbucks.  Giving into the admittedly tourist-like mentality, we enjoyed a few minutes at a courtyard table in the middle of the capital of Colombia, enjoying our Colombian coffee, and taking in the hustle and bustle of the city around us.  My café helado (iced coffee) really was better than those I’ve had in America (or at least it tasted that way given the atmosphere), and Mr. WACH’s espresso did not disappoint.

Refreshed after our coffee break, our tour ventured out of La Candelaría, past one of the many universities in Bogotá, to a blue building where locals come to play tejo, the national game of Colombia. The best way to describe tejo to an American is that it’s just like cornhole, except the bean bags cause an explosion of gunpowder when they hit the board.  Sound like Bogota 129 - Copyfun?  It was.  The club we visited was Club Deportivo de Tejo, El Porvenir del Norte.  Its exposed brick walls were covered with brightly-colored paint, decorations, and ads for various Colombian beverages.  The club’s mascot was an enormous rooster who roamed the building as he pleased.  Multiple tejo courts line each side of the building.  At each end of the court is a piece of metal, about the size of a cornhole board (roughly 4’ x 3’).  The boards are covered in clay with a metal circle pressed into the middle.  Small triangles filled with gunpowder are pressed into the clay around the circles.  The object of the game is to toss the tejo (a small metal disc) toward the boards and hit the triangles.  Some points are awarded for hitting the board, but the most points are awarded for hitting the triangles, which causes a small explosion that sounds a lot like a gunshot.  We visited during the day and had the place to ourselves, but Karen explained that the club would be packed full of locals having drinks on the weekends, with loud cheers across the room at every tejo explosion.  When tejo finally catches on in the U.S., I want to be on Mr. WACH’s team because he was one of the only two in our group of 25 who caused a tejo explosion!

After a great morning learning about Bogotá’s history and culture, our grouIMG_0999 - Copyp broke for lunch, and we ventured out on our own for some local fare.  We landed in Mangos Parrilla, just a few short few blocks from our hotel.  Anxious to try something we couldn’t get at home, we both ordered a platter full of different Colombian fare called Bandeja Paisa.  It was a TON of food.  Red beans cooked with pork, rice, chicharrón, a fried egg, plantains, chorizo, and arepa, plus a tasty soup that arrived before we even got our main dish and some fresh lemonade to top it off.  Perhaps we should have saved that meal for dinner because we were definitely ready for a nap by the time we finished.  Oh well, no rest for the weary (or those who eat too much)!

With full bellies, we set out for Cerro de Monserrate, which is part of the Andes Mountains and right in the heart of Bogotá. At 3152 meters above sea level, Monserrate towers over the city and provides a beautiful backdrop for virtually any point in Bogotá.  Although we’d read that views from the top of Monserrate would be obscured on a cloudy day, we took a Bogota 157chance and ventured up the mountain in the rain.  I’m so glad we did!  The rain ended just before we started back down and left behind an absolutely gorgeous view of Bogotá that let us see just how big the city really is.  Visitors can travel up the mountain by walking path, funicular (inclined railway), or teleférico (cable car).  We took the funicular up and the teleférico back down so that we could try both experiences, and I recommend both.  The tracks and cables end at a small plateau about 100 meters from the apex of Monserrate, at the beginning of a paved trail that leads to the top.  Visitors can take in stunning views of the city from there or continue venturing up for an even greater vista. Naturally, we chose to keep going.

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Colombia is a heavily Catholic country.  Karen explained that believers often travel up Monserrate, sometimes climbing the last stretch on their hands and knees, as an act of penance.  The landscaped path leading to the apex of the mountain is lined with colorful gardens and impressive bronze statues depicting the Stations of the Cross where the faithful often leave candles or flowers as an offering or in remembrance of loved ones.  Those who reach the top may visit the seventeenth-century Monserrate Sanctuary that is adorned with intricate wood carvings and bright stained glass and houses the treasured shire to El Señor Caido, the Fallen Lord.  Just a few steps further up Monserrate, visitors can find several shops and restaurants where tourists and locals alike can spend a few hours with family and friends, enjoying the scenic view.  Although we’d already eaten, Mr. WACH couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try a Colombian delicacy – fried “big butt” ants.  Not my style, but he happily succeeded in talking a few others on our trip into joining him.

After a quick rest following our trek up Monserrate, we decided to make the most of our remaining time in the city by going out to dinner with IMG_1019 - Copyseveral others on our tour to a restaurant that our tour manager, Victoria, recommended as one of the most unique dining experiences in Bogotá.  Andres Carne de Res definitely fit that bill.  For starters, it holds approximately 800 people on four floors, and the menu is so big that it makes The Cheesecake Factory’s menu look like Raising Cane’s.  You could easily spend hours looking at the unique decorations that cover every square inch of the walls and ceilings.  Each floor has a kingdom name from Dante’s Divine Comedy that inspires its decor:  hell, earth, purgatory, and heaven.  Art, lights, sculpture, signs – you name it, it was probably on the walls of Andres.  A dance floor takes over part of one floor, and the rest is covered with bars and tables.  The longer you visit, the more strange things you’ll see.  We saw people dressed as pirates, people dressed as if they were in the U.S. in the 1950’s, and three grown men who dressed and acted as cats.  All of this juxtaposed against loud music and great food was something that I’ll definitely remember from my visit to Bogotá and recommend to anyone who visits.

If you’re in the mood for something a little different from your typical holiday in the U.S., Bogotá should definitely be on your list.  It has so many things to offer.  Nature lovers can enjoy a day on Monserrate, art enthusiasts can enjoy the Museo Botero, and foodies will be happily overwhelmed by the number of good restaurants.  History buffs will enjoy learning about the native Colombian tribes and the historic old city in La CandelarÍa, and those who appreciate architecture will find no shortage of interesting designs.  On top of all of this, everything is very affordable.  One piece of advice though – make sure you have a basic conversational fluency in Spanish before you visit, unless you’re traveling with a guide.  I was surprised to realize just how rusty my language skills had gotten from lack of use over the past few years, and I could definitely have benefited from a stronger conversational fluency.  Perhaps that’s a good lesson to learn though, because it’s inspiring me to brush up on my Spanish language skills now that I’m home!

© Copyright 2015 – Amelia Adams

Explore Tennessee: Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area

It’s a wonderful thing when the weather is so nice in January that I can spend an entire day outside enjoying the sunshine, made even better when I find a new place to explore and that allows me to bring along my two dogs, Leo and Bella.  Living in the middle of central Kentucky’s beautiful landscape, it’s surprising how few hiking trails near Lexington allow dogs to join their humans for a bit of out outdoor recreation.  My favorite place nearby is the Pinnacles at Indian Fort Theatre in Berea, Kentucky, but since Mr. WACH and I made a resolution to have new local adventures in 2015, we broadened our search for a trail a bit.  Browsing a Google map of the area near Lexington led us to a large nature area in northern Tennessee, just across the state line.  The Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area encompasses 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau with many hiking and horseback riding trails traversing its expansive landscape.  A few quick internet searches revealed striking photos and positive reviews, so our decision was made.

Twin Arches Staircase
Staircases on the Twin Arches Trail

We started our journey heading south on I-75 from Lexington, exiting at Mt. Vernon and heading south through Somerset and Monticello.  We crossed over the Tennessee state line, and shortly after, we entered the west side of the Big South Fork NRRA.  Despite recent ice and melting snow, the roads were in good condition as we drove deep into the back of the park toward the trailhead of the Twin Arches Trail.  The recent winter weather must have made all of the smells of the forest come alive because we could hardly contain Leo and Bella once they got out of the car and began guiding us down the mountain for the first leg of our hike.  The Twin Arches Trail spans 0.7 miles each way, venturing mostly downward with two steep staircases along the way.  At the bottom are two of the largest natural rock arches in the eastern United States, the “Twin Arches.”  The North and South Arches, as they are known, were carved by nature, side-by-side out of the same rocky ridge that still connects them.  According to the National Park Service, “[t]he North Arch has a clearance of 51 feet, a span of 93 feet and its deck is 62 feet high; South Arch has a clearance of 70 feet, a span of 135 feet and its deck is 103 feet high.”  Truly an impressive pair!

Twin Arch
One of the Twin Arches

From the arches, we headed about 400 feet father down the mountain to investigate Charit Creek Lodge.  What a great decision!  Nestled in a valley, the Lodge is a collection of log buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are the oldest buildings in use by the National Park System.  The main lodge building was built in the early 1800’s and remained a private residence until 1959, becoming a part of the Park System in 1982.  Accessible only by hiking, mountain biking, or horseback, the Lodge provides guests with an experience to truly get away from the city and relax off the grid for a night, or several.  Guests can stay in the main lodge or in one of the nearby cabins, and they can choose between full service (includes linens and full meals) or limited service (bring your own linens and food for grilling out) rates for a night’s stay.  All of the buildings are heated with wood-burning stoves, have screened in porches, and several benches and rocking chairs for enjoying the beautiful scenery in every direction.  The Lodge property runs next to a mountain creek that would be great for wading in the summer or just sitting nearby and enjoying a book.  For those coming in on horseback, the Lodge property contains a barn for overnight accommodations for equine guests.  Dogs are welcome as well, and the concessionaire’s two dogs were very friendly to us and our pups. Our trip didn’t include a stay at Charit Creek Lodge this time, but it is definitely on our list of places to visit this summer!

Charit Creek Canteen
Charit Creek Canteen
Charit Creek Lodge Porch
Charit Creek Lodge Porch
Charit Creek Bath House
Charit Creek Bath House
Charit Creek Lodge
Charit Creek Lodge
Charit Creek Cabin
Charit Creek Cabin

From Charit Creek, we continued around the Twin Arches Loop trail for 6.0 miles.  Our trek guided us along a rocky mountain stream that provided great background music for an afternoon in the woods.  The trail was very well made and included footbridges across muddy areas, even though Bella and Leo mostly chose to run in the mud instead of taking the high road.  Climbing back up towards our starting point, we walked past several impressive overhanging rock shelters and bluffs made all the more beautiful by the icicles melting down the colorful rock faces.  In years past, the shelters and caves were used by Native Americans and early settlers as they sought shelter when traveling through the area.  Most of this part hike had a gradual increase in incline with only a few steep hills every now and then, bringing us back around to the other side of the Twin Arches from where we began.  To finish our day, we climbed three very steep staircases to the top of the arches and walked across the rock bridge to the end of the trail.  We were so glad we saved this climb for the end of the day because seeing the wide vista of the park from the top of the Twin Arches was a great reward for our tired legs and tired puppies.

Bella and Leo at Big South Fork
Bella and Leo learned to use the foot bridge!
Rock Shelter in Big South Fork
Rock Shelter in Big South Fork
Big South Fork Bridge
Creek Bridge in Big South Fork

What a truly wonderful way to spend a day and earn the delicious cheeseburgers and fries we treated ourselves to for dinner!  I’d highly recommend making the trip to Big South Fork.

© Copyright 2015 Amelia Adams

Explore North Carolina: Visit Asheville

img_0364Asheville, North Carolina is one of my favorite cities for a weekend getaway.  It has beautiful scenery, a lively downtown, lots of local beer, and a thriving art culture.  Plus, it’s dog friendly!  If I were planning to go this weekend, here’s what I’d think about doing.

When you arrive on Friday night, drop your bags in your hotel (or VRBO.com rental) and head to Lexington Avenue Brewery or The Southern Kitchen & Bar for dinner and a beer.  Asheville has earned a reputation as one of the best craft beer cities in the south, and you can sample local beer, enjoy a glass of wine, or try a new cocktail at either of these places or one of the many others in close proximity.

On Saturday morning, get up early, grab a quick coffee, and drive into the Blue Ridge Mountains for a hike to start your day.  Explore Asheville has a great hiking guide.  No matter which hike you choose, you’ll work up a strong appetite for the most important meal of your day:  brunch.  I suggest brunch at Biscuit Head or Sunny Point Café in West Asheville or Tupelo Honey Café or Early Girl Eatery downtown.  You can’t go wrong with any of them.  Southerners take brunch seriously, and these are popular spots.  Plan accordingly, and expect to wait for a table for a bit when you arrive.  I promise that it’s worth the wait.  Biscuit Head and Sunny Point both have dog-friendly patios, which is perfect if you’re like me and enjoy traveling with your pups.

After brunch, take a walk around downtown Asheville and enjoy visiting all sorts of art galleries and local boutiques.  There are so, so many unique shops, and it’s easy to find something that everyone in your group will enjoy.  When you need a rest, visit Pritchard Park, where there is always something going on.  I’ve seen street musicians, art markets, hippies with hula hoops, and lots of happy dogs and families there.  Sit a bit, and take in the activity around you.

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Mid-afternoon, stop by the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar.  It’s easily my favorite place in Asheville.  Set in a treasured old building, the Exchange is part used book store and part literary bar.  You can browse the shelves to your heart’s content, enjoy a cocktail named after your favorite author, and have a lovely conversation in one of the many curated lounge spaces.  The best part:  it’s dog friendly!  Well-behaved dogs are welcome, as long as they sit on the floor or on laps, not directly on the furniture.  (Tip:  If anyone in your group doesn’t drink, they have non-alcoholic beer and mocktails.  I visited last year while I was expecting a baby, and I was happy to see those options.)

After your book and cocktail adventure, head back to your hotel for a bit and get a little dressed up for dinner.  I suggest making an early-ish dinner reservation at Nightbell and stopping by Sovereign Remedies for a post-dinner craft cocktail and dessert.  Nightbell is in high demand, so make a reservation well before your trip.  My girlfriends and I had a multi-course meal there during a bachelorette weekend, and I can still remember how much I enjoyed the food and wine.  I’m not someone who is easily excited by food, so for me to recall a meal means that it’s really special!  As for Sovereign Remedies, I was thoroughly impressed when I ordered a bourbon and ginger and the bartender pulled out real ginger to make it.

On Sunday morning, enjoy a leisurely morning coffee at West End Bakery in West Asheville or Double D’s Coffee & Desserts downtown (in a double-decker bus).  Have brunch on the Sunset Terrace at the Grove Park Inn if the weather is nice.  No matter where you sit, you’ll have a gorgeous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Their cocktails are tasty and beautifully garnished, so take your time perusing the menu and order your fancy.

After lunch, drive to the Biltmore Estate, and prepare to spend a day getting lost in the Victorian era.  Biltmore house is the largest private residence in the United States.  Railroad and shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt finished building it for his family in 1895, and his descendants still own it today.  A bit of trivia:  CNN’s Anderson Cooper is a member of the Vanderbilt family.  Also, the 1990s Macaulay Culkin movie “Richie Rich” was filmed there.  Biltmore house was Richie’s house.

Biltmore house tours are not inexpensive, but they’re worth taking at least once.  (Tips:  Buy your tickets online before you arrive for price discounts, and make sure to take a classic selfie on the front lawn.  That’s my husband and me circa 2007.  Check out those sunglasses!)  My favorite part of the house is the Halloween Room in the basement.  I can imagine a party of people dressed in Victorian finery making a fantastic mess painting random art on the walls, which sounds like a lot of fun to me.  After your tour, stop by the Stable next to the house to do a little shopping and eat ice cream.  Stroll the manicured gardens on the other side of the house, take in the designs of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and see the panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Don’t forget to drive over to the Biltmore Winery for a tasting before you leave.  My friends and I booked a Wine & Cheese Hour and loved it!

Biltmore is beautiful in every season.  The Estate puts on the Ritz for the holidays, which makes winter a great time to visit.  If you visit in the summer and enjoy live music, check the Biltmore Summer Concert Series calendar.  On certain Saturday nights, Biltmore hosts a concert on the lawn next to the house.  My husband and I saw Phillip Phillips and the Goo Goo Dolls there last summer.  Listening to the band against the backdrop of the house on one side and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the other is a memory that I will treasure.  (Tip:  If you go to a concert, plan for it to take a while to get back to your vehicle after the show.  Parking is a few miles away on a different part of the Estate, and you’ll ride a shuttle bus to Biltmore house.  The shuttles are a well-run operation, but they do take a little while.)

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There are many more things to love about Asheville, and this list should easily send you on your way to a lifelong love affair with the city.  I hope that it encourages you to plan a trip very soon!

Copyright © 2018 – Amelia Adams