I opened my eyes and looked out past the lace curtain on my time-capsule 70s hotel room. Without needing to leave the warmth of my bed and its four layers of thick blankets, I could watch the morning fog roll down the side of the mountains surrounding my hotel in La Paz, Bolivia. My eyes strained to make out the silhouette of the teleferico station perched at the edge of the plateau where El Alto begins, and the tiny cable cars rolling up and down the steep hillside, like toys.
My time in Bolivia was drawing to a close and I was contemplating how much money I would need for my last few days in the country. It’s always a tough balance – you never want to have too much, but of course you don’t want to run out either, so I in my sleep-haze I began attempting the mental addition to figure out how much I’d need to settle my hotel bill, book a tour in Salar de Uyuni to see the famous salt flats, and to get myself to the Chilean border in the next few days.
I reached down to the floor to rummage around in my purse for my wallet to see how many Bolivianos I had left after dinner the night before.
My heart nearly stopped – my ATM card was missing!
One of the things I love best about traveling in a foreign country is the feeling of being out of my comfort zone. When I’m in a place where I don’t speak the language, every day tasks such as finding a good place for lunch, catching the right bus or trying to buy shampoo become learning experiences. Although it can be challenging at times (and I often feel like an idiot) it forces me to be humble, to ask for help and to use more of my brain every day.
In 2008 when I was in Laos, I wrote a post about the language barrier and how it was frustrating when it prevented me from doing simple things like getting where I wanted to go. In Asia, being half-Japanese worked to my advantage because I didn’t stand out as obviously as being foreign. It’s the same here in Ecuador until I open my mouth and I’m forced to show how bad my Spanish is!
We’ve been in Colombia for two weeks now and have just arrived in our 4th city (5th if you count a day trip to Guatape) so we have a bit of experience traveling around Colombia by bus, so I thought I would pass along a few tips we have picked up along the way.
Getting to the bus terminal in Colombia
First, find your way to the bus terminal. (Take note that some cities, like Medellin may have more than one, serving different destinations.) If you don’t have much luggage, public transport will get you there just fine, however it’s often worth coughing up a few extra pesos for a cab to get to/from the bus terminal if you have unwieldy luggage. Not just for the convenience of being taken door to door, but as a safety consideration. Standing in the street looking confused and trying to keep tabs on various things you are carrying is a sure way to mark yourself as a target for scams and pickpockets. If you have a smart phone, apps like Easy Taxi, Tappsy, or Uber are used frequently by locals and can help you to safely call a cab – do not try flagging one down on the street.
How far in advance should I book?
Generally, you can usually turn up at a bus station the same day you’d like to leave and just hop on the next bus to your destination. However, if you know your preferred dates for travel or have a specific time you’d like to leave, it may be worth it to go a day or two in advance to secure a spot. (We spent 5 hours in Bogota because we had heard that buses would be leaving frequently to Medellin, however the next available bus had us arriving at 1:30am. Yuck.) Alternatively, consider purchasing your onward ticket when you arrive at a bus terminal go save yourself a trip.
To choose a company, look at the various ticket windows as the names of the destinations will usually be prominently posted. There are often a few companies serving popular routes, so feel free to shop around. I’ve read that you can sometimes (politely) inquire about any discounts and knock 10-20% off the already inexpensive fares, however with our poor Spanish we have yet to attempt this.
What type of bus should I choose?
Buses can vary widely based on the company you choose and the distance you’ll travel. If you’re on a longer distance bus, you’ll often find amenities like free wifi, reclining seats, movies (dubbed in Spanish) and a bathroom on board. You can often see a photo of the bus itself or at least a seat layout to reserve yours on the bigger buses, so you’ll know this is what you’re getting.
For shorter distances, you may be on a “microbus” with no bathroom, no air conditioning, and more colorful characters on board. Short haul buses are often not nonstop, so add to your travel time estimates to account for picking up and dropping off passengers along the way to fill up any extra seats or sometimes even the aisles. There may be limited luggage storage space so you sometimes will be placing yours at your feet or on your lap.
Tips for riding in comfort
If you are prone to motion sickness, consider taking medication in advance so you’ll be able to sleep through the worst of it. Buses routes in Colombia travel all over, often through steep and winding terrain.
Although a few of our buses were quite comfortable, we have also experienced the frigid air conditioning and now prepare ourselves by dressing in multiple layers. (Scarves and gloves included, no joke!) It wouldn’t hurt to bring along a blanket too, just in case!
On longer routes, there will be a stop at least part way through where the driver takes a break at a rest stop. Everyone gets off the bus at this time, and it’s a good time to use the bathroom and grab a bite from the cafeteria. Consider packing your own food or snacks if you don’t want to take a chance with the fare on offer at the rest stop.
Our experiences with Bus Routes in Colombia
Bogota to Medellin
Allow at least 10-11 hours, our rest stop was about 7 hours in.
Cost: 60,000 pesos with Bolivarianos
No real complaints except that we wished we had booked in advance since the first available bus was 2:45pm, which delivered us in Medellin’s north terminal at 1:30am. The bus was large and comfy with password protected wifi and reclining seats.
Day trip: Medellin to Guatape
Cost: 11,000 pesos with — to La Piedra (to climb El Penol for beautiful views of Guatape)
Return trip, Guatape town to Medellin
Cost: 14,000 pesos
Both of these buses are the smaller buses, we got quite chilly on the way back so layers are advisable. Purchase your return ticket as soon as you arrive so you are guaranteed a seat. We ended up switching to an earlier departure when it started raining, thwarting our plans to take a boat ride on the lake.
Medellin to Salento (via Armenia)
Cost: 39,000 pesos with — to Armenia
The bus itself was large and spacious, with reclining seats and calf rests, open wifi, and not even half full. The temperature was freezing and the windy mountain roads made us queasy. Eat a solid breakfast and take medicine before leaving if you get motion sickness.
Armenia to Salento
Cost: 3800 pesos
Microbuses for Salento leave regularly from Armenia – ask around and you’ll be directed to the small departure bay where you pay the fare on board. This bus was the smallest (and oldest) we have been on. Despite being only an hour or so, we stopped to let people on and off a few times and at one point a woman boarded to sell delicious empanadas filled with a guava paste and queso. If you see everyone else buying one, it might be worth a try! 😉
When I mention to people that I’ve never been to Portland, they’re always surprised. It’s one of the great food cities of the West Coast, and it’s been on my radar for years but I had never gotten around to making an actual stop there for one reason or another. My cousin Daniel moved up there five years ago, so I even had a place to stay. So this year, I found a way to fit it into my plans.
I’m so glad that I finally did!
Although on this trip I had a very limited budget, it was no problem in Portland. The variety of inexpensive and creative food found right on the streets blew me away. Plus I always love the chance to support local businesses, so food carts are right up my alley.
Portland was really one of the first cities to truly embrace the food cart craze, and I’m happy to report that it’s still going strong – it’s reported that there are over 600 food carts in operation. You can find just about every type of ethnic food to match any craving. And I’m not just talking about your standard gyros, korean fusion tacos, or grilled cheese trucks – although you can find excellent examples of all three. When I asked for Portland recommendations, I was told to seek out a Mauritian, a Georgian (the country, not the state), and a Transyvlanian cart. How cool is that?
Needless to say I was in food heaven just thinking of the possibilities. So on my first day, my old friend Sheryl was kind enough to meet up with me on her lunch break so that we could try a variety of trucks. Two girls + five food carts in a little under two hours = full bellies and lots of leftovers! That’s my favorite kind of math. 😉 Here’s a look at some of the things we tried.
My (Current) Favorite Portland Food Carts
*I have to put the disclaimer here that this is my current list of favorites – I’m sure that given a few more days I’ve have a bunch more to recommend. These were my highlights from my first visit to the magical land of food carts, better known as Portland.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
One of three locations, the Downtown cart for Nong’s Khao Man Gai is in my favorite food cart pod at SW 10th & Alder. This was my cousin Daniel’s recommendation and the only cart that I loved so much I had it twice!
The menu is short – they do one thing, and they do it well. Order the chicken & rice and it comes tied up with a rubber band along with a container of light soup to wash it down. So simple & delicious, although a little messy to eat unless you’ve got a table to sit at. In fact, their website has a tutorial video on how to eat Khao Man Gai. Be warned – it will make you hungry!
Owners Sean and McKinze wrapped up over two years in the Peace Corps in Georgia in 2012 and opened Kargi Gogo to pay homage to the people, the food, and the recipes they fell in love with while there. I’d never had Georgian food before, so I had to ask for recommendations – I wish I had more time to try them all!
We ended up going with the Khinkali, stuffed beef & pork dumplings, and loved them. I expected the wrapper to be thinner like asian dumplings (they are shaped like Xiao Long Bao), but the outside is more doughy, and for me the taste reminded me of a chow funn noodle.
My friend Jay is the ultimate foodie. We jokingly call him a “food snob” but really, what it means is that he has high standards for food and everything about it. The ingredients, the preparation, the love that goes into the final product, the experience of eating and the enjoyment that can come with sharing it with good company. So when he declared the Transylvanian cart, Delicios, his favorite food cart in Portland, I knew I had to seek it out – and we weren’t disappointed!
We ordered the mici on Jay’s recommendation and chatted with the cart owners are we waited. They were so sweet and even remembered Jay from his visit a few months ago. As the mici are grilled to order they do take a few minutes, so they also passed out samples of their popular chimney cakes, which were delicious. Or “delicios”, as they’d say in Romania. =)
There are lots of Hawaii transplants in the Pacific Northwest and 808 Grinds brings a taste of the familiar plate lunch from Maui to PDX. A scoop rice, scoop mac salad and your choice of entree is local comfort food at its best. I chose the 808 Fried Chicken (mochiko chicken, so the batter has a touch of sweetness) although it was tough to choose. Other options were kalua pig, shoyu chicken or loco moco.
As for the name, 808 is the area code for all of Hawaii. The owners of the cart both hail from Maui (just like me!) so Sheryl and I definitely had to check them out.
Pulehu Pizza is run by another duo from Maui, including my classmate Annebelle. It was so fun to see her in action after chatting via Twitter and Facebook. We haven’t seen each other in years, so we stopped by the cart to try a “half & half” version of their 8″ pizza so that we could try two types.
We opted for half Truffle Mushroom and the other half we asked her to surprise us. It came fresh off the grill (yes, grilled pizzas!) and piled with fresh toppings including a housemade ricotta cheese, veggies and local sausage. For a final sweet touch, Annebelle gifted us a “kitchen sink” cookie based off the recipe from Momofuku Milk Bar. If they haven’t run out by the time you visit, I’d definitely recommend picking up one of these for dessert!
Just a block from Pulehu Pizza, we stopped by Chez Dodo to try the tofu fritters, again based on Jay’s recommendation plus a 5 star average on Yelp with over 100 reviews – impressive!
I’d never had Mauritian food before, and although the menu looked enticing – lots of tasty curries, noodle dishes and even many vegetarian options, we just did not have room for a second dish. Everyone comments on the chef’s friendly demeanor, although he was pretty busy when we stopped in. Next time we’ll have to come here first. So many food carts, so little time!
A couple of tips to help you to enjoy all that Portland’s food carts have to offer.
Bring a friend – As is always the case for food cart events (like Eat the Street back home), there is strength in numbers when dining at food carts. Get a variety of options and share them family style so that you can try more than just one if at all possible.
Check social media – Many food carts are on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram, where you’ll find the heads up on specials, photos of their dishes, sell-outs or details like changes in hours or location. (All three are public sites, so you don’t even need to be signed in to view.) Deals or discounts are sometimes offered with sites like Yelp or Foursquare if you “check in” to the location, which basically shows your friends or followers that you’re there – consider it word-of-mouth advertising for the digital age.
Ask for recommendations – If you have any friends, family or acquantainces in Portland, hit them up for their favorite carts and what to order. If you don’t, as your hotel or cab driver. Everyone has a favorite. If nothing else, be sure to ask the person taking your order for what they would recommend – you’ll get the inside scoop on what’s the most popular, a sample, or maybe even a secret menu item or two.
>> I don’t claim to be an expert (at all!) on Portland’s food carts, so if you’d like more elaborate info, FoodCartsPortland.com is a great resource with vendor listings, maps and write ups.
>> Did I miss your favorite Portland food cart? Check my page of Portland Recommendations and leave it in the comments if you don’t see it there. That’s my short list for the next trip to PDX, which I hope will be soon!
The first time I can remember catching a real train (the Sugar Cane Train and the Pearlridge Monorail don’t count) was the summer after I graduated from high school, when I spent three months backpacking around Europe before heading off to college. My friend Meghan and I bought the Europass option that allowed us 8 days of train travel over a 2 month period and we made use of it by visiting France, Spain, Italy, plus a last minute addition of Prague when we gained one extra leg where the conductor forgot to punch our passes.
I loved it even more than I loved airplane travel, simply because it allowed us so much more room, huge viewing windows and freedom to walk through the cars. Growing up in Hawaii, we have no need for a long-distance train, so I find that in my adult life – whenever the routing allows – I try to book train travel to get me at least part of the way to my destination.
Since that summer in Europe, I’ve also taken trains in the Northeast US – I remember heading from NYC to West Point one autumn when the leaves were changing color because I sat glued to the window in awe. (Leaves don’t change in Hawaii either.) In 2008 when we traveled in Asia, I frequently caught the overnight train between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, enjoying the ride even when I was squished up in my sleeper bunk, rolling around and hoping I wouldn’t fall out in the night. One particularly memorable train ride came in 2011, when I’d talked Jess, Eric and Edwin into coming with me from Seattle to Vancouver for my TBEX Conference. On the way back to Seattle, Eric got down on one knee and – with the help of Edwin and I (and the train crew) – shocked Jess by proposing while he played “their song”.
Portland to LA on the Amtrak Coast Starlight
This trip, I had the chance to piece together trips on an Amtrak route that I’ve always been curious about. The Amtrak Coast Starlight actually starts in Seattle and runs all the way to LA, but I opted to catch it from Portland. This portion of the route takes a whopping 30 hours because of the stops, but it really didn’t feel that long until maybe the last couple of hours once the sun had set. It was also one of the most productive trips I’ve had. There is no wifi available yet on this route, which I at first thought would be a hindrance but was really a blessing in disguise. Without constant connection to the internet, I was able to slow down, unplug and to really soak in the experience.
We left just around 2:30pm from Portland and arrived in Los Angeles about an hour ahead of the posted schedule, at 8:15pm the following day. The best part of the trip was watching the scenery change as you head south.