Sri Lankan Drive By

My good friend Kim spent part of the first part of this summer backpacking through Thailand and India. Sri Lanka was on her list and she was in need of a travel partner, so I said “Why not?” and hopped on board, even though the timing and distance were a bit out of sync with my own travel plans. Prior to this trip, I knew nothing about Sri Lanka, and truthfully have never been drawn to India (no, they are not the same) either. As it tends to go for most travelers I think, I would return to Sri Lanka in a heart beat. A week was hardly enough for such a beautiful country with such diverse vistas, flora, fauna, and gorgeous culture. It’s been almost two weeks since my return, so you’ll find my haphazard recollection below.

The off season is March-Sept, and July is the rainy season down south, where we spent the majority of our time. We were really grateful to avoid the tourist crowds, and, as it was the tail of the rainy season, we also never saw a drop of rain during the day time. Ideal conditions! We found that pretty much everyone knows at least a few words in English, even if those few words are how much the fare is.

IMG_9644
Unawatuna’s Jungle Beach; just a tad bit over-rated

We landed in Colombo, the capital, and immediately hopped on a bus down to the historical fortress town of Galle. From there, we took a tuk tuk across to Unawatuna, then to Midigama, then Mirissa (each ride being within 15-30 minutes). These were our “beachy” destinations, in the Southern Province. From there, we hopped on a public bus up to Ella, so that we could experience the famous train ride between Ella and Kandy. These were in the Central Province, so they were cooler and a much higher elevation. From Kandy, we high tailed it back to Colombo to catch our flights out.

Our first hiccup was in Midigama; this is a very small surfing town. The location was recommended to Kim by a friend who had been there during the on-season, so we didn’t expect to struggle to find lodging! Turns out everything kinda shuts down during the off season, so her tried-and-true method of researching lodging before arriving (but not booking!), then negotiating upon arrival, did not pan out quite as well as it had previously . Luckily, we were saved by a local named Renuk, who runs the Colonial Surfing Life guest house. He saw us trekking and invited us to stay at his place. He was the most enthusiastic and positive person I’ve met. Upon our arrival he was running here, there, all over the house, getting everything set up for us. He set up his wifi (I suppose they keep it off during the low season), got us bikes, drove us to dinner, to the grocery store and the pier, as well as to our next destination. He and his wife were super helpful, and his daughter was adorable. His place was rustic, but I know I will look back on Midigama with the most fondness.

We really wanted to see the local stick fishermen at work, and it seemed we may not be able to! However, the evening we arrived at Renuk’s place, we decided to take a walk down the main road to see what we could see. We saw a man and child turning off the main road towards the ocean. Thinking we could reach the beach, we followed and ended up meeting a family of fishermen!  Their homes faced the ocean, and they had set up their fishing sticks right there in front. The two daughters came out to say hello to us, and gave us the scoop. We had missed their afternoon catch (usually about 3-4pm), but were told to return the next day at 8. The next morning, we returned and ended upspending two hours with them, first watching the men fish, then simply talking with the family and playing with the three kids. The women cracked open a coconut for us (fresh breakfast!) and set up some chairs there on the path in front of the house. I admit I was nervous to hang out, but they were really just excited to have foreign visitors. I hesitated to pull out my phone and snap some pics, but Kim took a few. One of the three photos below features one of the daughters, her two older children, and the baby (still learning to walk!) in the back. The bike belonged to Grandpa (whom we ended up meeting again on the road as he attempted to fix it.) At first, Midigama seemed like a bust, but here was where we met the nicest and most enthusiastic people, who simply wanted to chat for the sake of chatting.

 

Famous Fishermen

The only other hiccup of the trip was Colombo. I took the reigns on this one, and admit perhaps could have done a bit better on choosing a place to stay. We ended up at Colombo Guest, near the bus station, since we only had a night and half day here. We were hoping to visit the markets in the morning before flying out, but the location was rather unpleasant since it was very central and downtown. I was a bit surprised that we got catcalled in Colombo after all of the great people we met in the smaller towns. We ended up at the beach and getting some mehndi done rather than shopping, and I have to say the best Kottu (a local dish of chopped roti and veggies, egg, or meat) that we had on the trip was from the little place below the hostel. We would seriously return there just for the Kottu, y’all.

image
I called this Galle Matara bus my “sweet chariot of fire”

Half of the adventure on this trip was the transportation. I am so grateful to Kim, because if she hadn’t been intent on doing so, I would never have taken public transportation in Sri Lanka. I’m glad I did though; first of all, it was ridiculously cheap – a dollar to get from Mirissa to Matara? Two dollars from the city center to the airport, or from Matara to Ella? DONE! The busses run constantly during the day, and it’s a good opportunity to get up close and personal with the locals (we sat next to the cutest baby between Kandy and Colombo!😭). It was also very empowering for me to take public transportation. We were always the only foreigners present, but we were always taken care of and treated with respect. The experience was also so much more authentic. The only downside to the buses is they can be cramped and they do take FOREVER. Besides the driver, there is a “manager” type guy who comes by to collect the fare. He also keeps an eye out if you are traveling with backpacks stored below, he will come down and open up the storage door for you. You just have to be fast cause they always seem to be rushing to make their next stop!

There are many transportation options… trains and buses are great, but if you really want to ride a tuk tuk, you can use a new app (recently launched) called Pick Me in Colombo. We learned about this app literally at the last minute, but it seems useful because  it uploads your destination into the driver’s map (a la uber), making it easier for them to get you where you want to go. Tuk tuks that say “Taxi” on them will have a meter, and the meter is your friend. Rates are LKR base rate plus 5o LKR/km. The meter will be big and visible above the driver’s head (yup, there’s a story there.) In general though we found the tuk tuks to be tuk crooks, asking for what turned out (we realized!) to be a minimum of at least double what the metered fare would be. On the other hand, we did score some tuk tuk deals between Galle, Unawatuna, and Midigama, because the drivers were heading that way anyway. If there’s no meter, negotiate. I hesitated with the negotiating because I am aware of who I am and where I come from, but as Kim explained to me, we also need to fight a bit not to be completely ripped off, paying up to 5x the local price. As a tourist, we can be easily scammed, so should learn to be more pedantic about our plans and our money.

Finally, we took the scenic mountain train between Ella and Kandy. I’m not sure if it is advised to start at one town or the other, but we got on the first train (6:40am) from Ella.

IMG_0722
Derpin hard on the train

For 6 hours we passed rolling hills covered in tea. Occasionally we would see women in colorful clothing with baskets strapped to their heads, picking the leaves. We rode over bridges and alongside breath taking valley views. Similar to the buses, we were the only foreigners in second class. We ended up in a car that was full of one extended family. They went down the aisle, passing out food that they had packed for each other; they stopped to offer us some each time they came by. At first we were a  bit confused, but they just smiled and motioned for us to take the fruit and sandwiches. For me, this was another full on authentic experience that I wouldn’t have had in first class (every seat filled by a white tourist!) or in a private van or taxi.

IMG_0946

For next time:

  • Hit up one of the national parks; Sri Lanka is home to many exotic species (go on a safari perhaps?), especially elephants and leopards!
  • Speaking of Elephants,  in Minneriya National Park is the largest elephant gathering in the world! It happens every year in late summer, apparently till November. Side note for any elephant attractions… Be careful about what you consume… don’t ride!
  • Surf or Kite
  • I would also love to see a religious festival. We missed the Kandy Esala Perahera procession by just a few weeks. Kandy claims to have one of the Buddha’s teeth and they are pretty pumped about it.

 

Advertisements

Pre-Blog Highlights

1. Las Altas Cumbres between Córdoba and Mina Clavero

The route between Córdoba city and the town of Mina Clavero takes you through a picturesque mountainous area – when we drove through, it was very foggy, giving it a mysterious vibe. After breaking though the foggy ascent, we stopped at some pretty rock formations where we were on level with the clouds. A bit further on, we visited a location called La Ola, or The Wave, where there are a few climbing routes, as well as a pretty stream across the highway. Córdoba was one of the first places Tincho came to climb, and while this was not the very first location, it definitely brought back some memories for him.



2. Los Elefantes in Mina Clavero

An interesting formation of rocks; I imagine this waterfall and river used to be much deeper. Tincho says the name comes from the fact that the rocks look like elephants, but I don’t really see it. Perhaps the round puddles look like elephant foot steps?

3.  La Yunga

En route from San Miguel de Tucumán to Tafí Del Valle on road number 307, there is a sub tropical rain forest in a region of the small mountain range called the Nevados del Aconquija. It’s quite a surprise to hit this wet area, especially when a lot of the north is so arid. The route has significant historical importance as well as it was one of the first routes through the Calchaquies mountains.



4.  This sweet dog who adopted us in La Rioja – there were lots of stray dogs wandering around in each town. I’m a dog lover but figure as long as they are able to eat, they are doing alright (though we did drive past a few who had become road kill 😓) This fellow trotted right up to me in the centro of La Rioja, put his paw on me, and hung out. We got up to leave, but ran into him again half way across town 30 minuetes later! He followed us as we walked back to the hostel.

5. Talampaya

This is the name of an incredible red canyon, as well as a national park. We got marooned in La Rioja as we waited for Monday (and an open auto repair shop for a clutch replacement), and ended up taking the local micro to the park. There, we treated ourselves to the best guided tour available – it had everything; a sweet guide, crazy old ladies fighting over seats, local fauna sightings, as well as wine and snacks, including some yummy fried dough sticks (I may never find them again) and amazing locally grown olives. I learned that the ostrich is called a Suri there, there are animals related to the rabbit called the Mara, llamas are called Guanacos, and there is an endangered bird called a Matineta. I have to admit I asked the guide far more linguistic related questions than geographical ones. The area is gorgeous and we wish we had had more time to explore the other paths and routes that visitors take.


Formation called The Cathedral


Formations called The Totem and The Tower (others were called The Monk and Temple – yes folks, there was a theme)

This canyon is special because of it’s very straight walls, caused by, what else, a prehistoric river.

The site has historical significance – scientists believe that it was a point along an ancient trade route, as evidenced by hieroglyphs in the area.

6. A bit tongue in cheek, but gaining confidence in driving stick shift was also a high light on this trip! Getting into first is still a bit tense, but these past couple of months I came a long way 😎

Las Salinas Grande de Jujuy

Friday, May 19

We leave the lovely Estela behind in Cachi, and make our way along la ruta 33 en route to Las Salinas Grandes in Jujuy. We pass through the Cardon National Park and along La Cuesta del Obispo, a winding, picturesque road through the mountains, down into the eponymous capital of Salta. Horses, cows, goats and sheep all graze pretty freely along the side of the road. We play tag along the picture points with the one other couple from the hotel whom we made friends with over breakfast, and Tincho hopes that the road will descend directly through the bank of clouds we see below us at the other end of the valley.
Tincho’s dream didn’t come to pass, but we did stumble upon some empanadas worth mentioning at a little hole in the wall restaurant called La Casona in General Güemes, a suburb of Salta. I recommend the cheese and onion.


After the quick lunch we high tail it up to Purmamarca since I want to hit up the salt flats and we need to turn back around and make our way back to Buenos Aires post haste tomorrow.

———

We pulled into Purmamarca at about 3pm to find a veritable tourist trap. However, I am in heaven – it won’t be difficult for me to step away and buy an alpaca sweater or two. It’s been perhaps 12 years since the family trip to Bolivia that began my mother’s alpaca craze, and you really can’t get a better deal than here in the middle of South America. I’m also hell bent on getting an ornamental piece of cardon for the apartment back in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, the majority of the textile goods and alpaca clothing available are imports from Bolivia (including the one I am wearing below). However, if you find any hand woven items in cream, brown, or gray, it’s a good bet they were made by local collectives.


After a quick tour of Purmamarca we left for the Salinas, which are about an hour away, so we end up pulling over into one of the stations set up for tourists just as the last guide was leaving for the day. Though we asked if we could go out onto the flats and she said “not without a guide,” we pull the car out anyway – the only witnesses are the salt miners on the other side of the highway and a couple on their honeymoon – Tincho offers to take their picture. We’ve reached the farthest point we’d planned for on the trip, the Peugot is covered in a not-so-fine layer of dirt, and we are feeling pretty satisfied with ourselves.


The region is already bone dry and our skin has been feelin the effects for the past couple of days, but the Salinas are brutal. These flats can barely compare in size and scope to Uyuni, Bolivia, but it is only 10 degrees Celsius out here, and Tincho’s sailor friend Tom would be gleeful about how fast the wind is blowing.  We run in circles for a few minutes, trying to capture the best light. Both of our phones die, the wind in my ears gives me a head ache, and Tincho is so static I bet he’d light up like a Christmas tree. Two hours later we climb back into the car, exhausted and content.




———

The next morning we do a quick “vuelta,” or a turn about, Tilcara. We pick up some papas andinas for Tincho’s dad (they aren’t really available further south, not even in Purmamarca or the capital of the Province, Jujuy) and have a quick lunch of empanadas. The region is known for having great empanadas, but we struck out with a place called Malka. In Tilcara, we saw even more of the Wiphala, or a flag of rainbow blocks. Our host told us that the flag represents all of the small towns in the north that resisted Spanish colonialism, and Wikipedia informs me that the flag represents all native Andeans, with a strong presence in Bolivia, and notes the symbolism of each color.


A note on Purmamarca versus Tilcara; If it weren’t for the myriad of stalls and stores, Purmamarca would be a tiny, sleepy little town. It is subject to the waves of tourists who rumble through, shop, take pictures, then leave. The locals then wait around for the next wave. While there are some high end hotels and shops, there wasn’t really a “cafe,” which tells me that it is not a place to hang out and relax. Tilcara is a bit more cosmopolitan, and has a few museums and historical attractions to boast of. When people heard we were heading to the Salinas, they asked, “Tilcara?” I’m under the impression that the extranjeros go to Purmamarca, and the Argentines hit up Tilcara. It also wasn’t till we got back to Buenos Aires that I noticed that two of the four items I bought were defective – stained in once case and an inconspicuous hole in another. A third item was the result of a bit of hunting – the first few I tried were not quite up to par… I’m inclined to advise against shopping in Purmamarca.

For next time:

– The hills of 7 colors and 14 colors (Purmamarca)

– The cactus garden in Tilcara – go on, call me nerdy

– El Tren de las Nubes; an old steam powered train that has been converted into a restaurant (Salta)

Intro and Cachi

I start this log near the end of our lil road trip here in the north of Argentina… it really hadn’t occurred to me to keep any sort of record until day 8 of 11. While I can’t promise amazing photos (Tincho is more often  exasperated with me than not), elevated prose (I will be writing from my phone), or even that I have done any research or planning at all (estilo Argentino?), I can promise to do my best in sharing my experiences with anyone who cares to read.

Thursday, May 18

We are currently in Cachi, a small town in the province of Salta, located on the famous Ruta 40 (known for traversing the entire length of the country as well as for being unpaved). We rumbled by laborers laying paprika peppers out in the sun to dry (suggestion: bring lotion), and pulled into town at about 4pm. We often hit town right in the middle of siesta – a term that we Americans think we are familiar with, yet we don’t fully grasp; it can last as long as 6 hours here in the far reaches of the country! I imagine it is similar in other regions that take part, and back in Buenos Aires it is more often 2 hours, while many do not take siesta at all. We have found that while the majority of the pueblo will close up shop, you can still find a “resto bar” open all day long on the central plaza. We have tended to eat lunch between 2 and 4, so have often relied on finding a place that is open. Tincho is also unfamiliar with the region, and tried to fall back on the age old tradition of “asking the locals” where to eat… however, I have to say it doesn’t often work out for us. A typical conversation follows;

Tincho: Where can we eat around here?

Local: Around the plaza.

Tincho: Somewhere rico?

Local: Si, around the plaza.

Occasionally we’ll tease a good restaurant out of the people we stop (such as El Hornito in Cafayate), but the trick seems to be finding someone who actually does eat out on occasion, can mentally compare various places and direct us.

In Cachi we ended up at Cafe Oliver and were pleasantly surprised to find a bit more inspiration in the menu, probably due to the owner’s time spent traveling outside the country. Our experience here in Cachi as well as Cafayate leads me to believe that the towns along route 40 are more frequented by tourists traveling the famous camino, and thus have a little more to offer in terms of food and accommodations. We definitely found more “Instagram worthy” subjects in these two towns. Additionally, the locals in these towns tended to be more relaxed laid back and open.

———

We had planned to drive on the next 5+ hours to Purmamarca in the late afternoon, but us being us, we ended up staying the night and found an amazing hotel called Hosteria Villa Cardon. The cardon is the wood that comes from the cactus that is prevelent in the area, and which has many uses. We really loved the large upright trunks used to hold little decorative plants. The proprietor Estela was an amazing host, and very patient with outsiders. The house itself dates from around 1800 and has traditional double mud walls that are up to two feet thick in places. The roof includes cardon wood with beams of algarrobo, both of which are now protected from deforestation and thus not available for purchase to use in modern construction. Our room cost arg$700, or $46 usd (the most we have paid for accomodation on this trip and with good cause!) For a little more you can get a room with a sky light which I would highly suggest as the stargazing in Cachi was amazing – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Milky Way with my bare eyes before. I’ve included a photo of the amazing place below as well as a detail shot of some Cardon.

detail of Cardon wood

Detail of Cardon wood


Hostería Villa Cardon

Estela rules the roost from behind this small kitchen
The heart and soul of the hotel, or, the small kitchen from which Estela rules the roost. This room doubles as a tea shop, so even if you don’t stay the night you can stop by for a chat and a cuppa.


The aforementioned ceiling made using Cardon and algarrobo.

For now, we are on our way to Jujuy and updates will certainly follow.

For next time:

La Poma – location of a naturally formed bridge called La Puente del Diablo, includes swimming in a cave! Best for spring.

El Nevado de Cachi – a picturesque group of mountain summits