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Following a hot, humid welcome to Colombia in Cartagena, I took a shuttle bus to Santa Marta. Located on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Santa Marta is a hub for a number of activities in neighboring places, but the city itself has few attractions. Its biggest claim to fame is being the first Spanish settlement in Colombia when Rodrigo de Bastidas took the place back in 1525.

While lacking a major tourist draw, I found Santa Marta pleasant, comfortable, and a good place to relax and strategize what surrounding places to visit. You could easily spend a couple weeks taking advantage of the many opportunities Santa Marta’s geographic location provides. I managed to squeeze in an incredible trek, overnighter at a beautiful national park, and a relaxing stay in a sleepy beach town during my stay.

For accommodations, I went with the newly opened La Guaca Hostel. Located outside of the congested city center and operated by a friendly, welcoming, and hospitable family, La Guaca was just what I was looking for. Pau, the middle of the family’s three sons, speaks English very well and was incredibly helpful in planning my trips out of Santa Marta and making my time there as enjoyable as possible.

As for the city itself, visitors congregate along the waterfront where there are a number of shops and restaurants/mobile food operators that cater to their needs. It was there where I got to try the legendary ketchup and mayo ceviche, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. There is a relatively small open air market near the bus terminal in the city center that doesn’t offer much in terms of things to see or eat.

Santa Marta is not a place you must see, but its proximity to a number of desirable destinations puts it on the map.

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Flying from Peru to anywhere in Colombia is not cheap, especially during high season. Having just one month for this trip, I decided to bite the bullet and hop on a plane rather than spend several days on a bus. I began the Colombia leg of my journey in Cartagena and would work my way south, eventually flying home from Bogota.

Like most visitors I stayed in the Old City. On the recommendation of my buddy Greg, who recently shot a travel show in Colombia called Backpacker Nation, I stayed at Hostel Mamaella. It was your typical hostel experience: the first night featured about 40 coked-up adolescents jawing away in the common area and the next night had a couple people quietly drafting cover letters and applying for jobs from their laptops in the same exact spot.

I decided to pass on visiting the beach, mud volcano, and taking the 5 day boat trip to Panama as many visitors to Cartagena do. Instead, days were spent walking around the gorgeous city marveling at the colorful Spanish colonial architecture and at night I would drink beer on the steps of a church in a plaza near Mamaella and watch children play soccer and street performers do their thing.

Colombian food isn’t very highly regarded and I found little to argue otherwise. Most everything is deep-fried, there is a severe lack of vegetables, and the food is bland. I tried another Bourdain recommended restaurant, La Cevicheria.

For the first time ever, Tony let me down. The staff wears turquoise pirate-esque bandanas and the interior looks like it could be in a Disney theme park. I ordered a mixed ceviche and the taste matched the ambiance. I met a few other people that tried the place and loved it, but an establishment can be judged on any dish on any day.

The highlight of my time in Cartagena was the Basurto Market. I always seek out open air markets as they tend to be the true heart of the city. Basurto was, by far, the most raw, gritty, and vibrant market I’ve come across. The place is huge, filled with a variety of sights, smells, and sounds, and I didn’t see another tourist there during both of my trips to Basurto.

I enjoyed my time in Cartagena, especially the market and wandering around the Old City. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re planning a Colombia trip.

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The Inca Trail is considered to be one of the best treks in the world. The Peruvian government placed a limit on how many people can access the trail each day and if you want to have a go at it during peak season, you must book 6-9 months in advance. The market always adjusts and some alternative routes to Machu Picchu have been gaining in popularity.

Salkantay and the Inca Jungle Trek have emerged as the most popular alternatives for the Inca Trail. Ironically, Salkantay is a true trek, with the Inca Jungle being a mix of biking, rafting, and hiking. I opted for the former and absolutely loved it.

You can complete Salkantay in 4 or 5 days, and I decided to go with the accelerated version. There are dozens of travel agencies in Cusco and it’s best to shop around once you arrive. I ended up paying $250 and people in my group that booked online paid upwards of $600.

As for the trek itself, the terrain varied from alpine to jungle, providing an interesting and diverse mix of natural beauty. The first day and a half are spent going up, eventually reaching a height of 4,600 meters above sea level, and the rest of the trek is mostly downhill.

There are two brilliant turquoise lakes and a large glacial canyon you can visit as minor excursions. The pace of my group left me with more than enough time to take in all of the bonus features of Salkantay, and they were worth the extra legwork.

With the exception of the last night, which is spent at a hostel, we slept in tents. The first night was at high altitude and quite chilly, but the others were fine. The food was poor, even for trekking standards, but the cocoa tea that accompanied our morning wakeup was nice.

Before heading to Aquas Calientes, the staging point for Machu Picchu, you stop by a hot springs to soak your achy muscles. From there you can either take a 40-minute, $26 train ride to Aquas, or do the 2-hour walk. People rise between 4 and 5 the next morning to get in a very long line for buses to the main attraction.

Despite sleeping in until 5, we made it to Machu Picchu in time to catch the sunrise. It was epic. Our guide explained the history of the place and took us for a tour of the grounds. I also checked out the Inca Bridge and Sun Gate, which are short walks from the main viewing area.

Machu Picchu was everything I dreamed it to be and the journey there was wondrous. 3,000 people visit each day for a reason and I could certainly see myself being one of them again.

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Machu Picchu is South America’s top tourist destination and Cusco is the gateway to the once-lost city. Coming from Lima it was great to see blue skies once again and the Spanish colonial architecture was stunning.

Located in the heart of the historical district, the Plaza de Armas is the epicenter of tourism in Cusco. There you will find the usual mix of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and travel agencies.

A short walk from the Plaza is San Pedro Market, which has a wide variety of produce, meat, and food stalls. I had most of my meals there. They were inexpensive, but nothing I’d go out of my way to eat again. I did manage to buy a bunch of Peruvian foodstuffs to bring home, including several types of corn, quinoa, and aji amarillo.

Overall, the food in Cusco was a disappointment. The tourist traps surrounding the Plaza de Armas serve an overpriced, horribly executed mix of international and Peruvian food. Since I was there, I had to try cuy (guinea pig). I went to Chez Maggy, which has two locations in the center and a Trip Advisor excellence sticker on the window. The service was horrible, the food worse, and the guinea pig nearly inedible.

Cuy was not what lured me to Cusco. I had hopes of taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but, during high season, that requires booking 6-9 months in advance. Not having that luxury, I settled for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, which was truly wonderful.

There is no shortage of massage parlors in Cusco and masseuses actively solicit business in the street. Prices range from $7 for a basic massage to $15 for the Inca Special. I splurged on the Inca following my trek and, while it wasn’t Thailand, had a very nice (strictly platonic) rubdown.

The day after my trek, I took the 45 minute bus ride to Pisaq, which, in addition to Inca ruins, holds a popular market on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The Sunday market featured an array of handicrafts and fresh produce. I purchased handicrafts and more foodstuffs to bring home, and had a gigantic and extremely tasty fried trout while in Pisaq.

Cusco is a beautiful city and I was extremely satisfied with my trek. I had originally intended to stick around longer and use Cusco as the starting point for another trek and to visit Lake Titicaca. The sheer volume of tourists and the impersonal, predatory atmosphere generated by it led me to seek greener pastures. I booked a flight for Colombia and decided to try my hand in a place less on the radar.

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Lima is the point of entry for visitors flying into Peru, and many continue on to their ultimate destination without spending much time in the capital city. The City of Kings has seen a recent bump in popularity, largely due to its culinary prowess, and that was enough for me to stay a couple days.

Gaston Acurio is a big reason why people now view Lima as a destination, even if an intermediate one. Ceviche is Peru’s most famous fare and Acurio’s flagship La Mar Cebicheria is regarded as a temple to citrus-cooked fish. Not counting the tasty 1 a.m. chicharone sandwich at La Lucha immediately following my arrival, my first meal in Lima was at La Mar.

From the potato chips with 3 different sauces and corn nuts still warm from the oven to the cebiche mixto, every bite I had at La Mar was transcendent. People claim that it’s overrated or overpriced, but, for me, La Mar more than lived up to the hype.

Just across the street from La Mar is the place for anticuchos: Grimanesa Vargas Anticuchos. I was surprised by the relative low cost and speed of service considering the acclaim. The skewers of beef heart were tender and flavorful, and came with potatoes and hot sauce.

My other meals were hit-and-miss, but I did have a great arroz con mariscos with ceviche and chicha for about $4 after visiting the Larco Museum. I fondly refer to the Larco as the “Erotic Pottery Museum.” It’s famous ancient erotica, but the extensive collection of Peruvian artifacts was worth a visit in its own right.

Like most visitors, I stayed in Miraflores. There are a number of hostels with dorm rooms available for around $15/night. It’s safe, clean, and nearly all of the places I visited were within walking distance. The Miraflores coastline is adorned with beautiful parks that, even in winter, were filled with people and their pets. Coming from Oahu, it was a treat to look down and see Waikiki Beach and Makaha Beach.

Championed by Acurio, the Surquillo Market is also in close proximity to Miraflores. Lima’s premier farmers’ market did not disappoint either. Despite being off-season, the variety was great and the prices were just as good. I went back again to grab more of the exotic fruit.

Transportation is convenient, but slightly complex if you don’t speak Spanish. Lima has an excellent bicycling infrastructure, public buses and mini-buses can cheaply take you anywhere you want to go, and taxis are inexpensive, with the usual exceptions of the airport and heavily touristic areas.

It being winter, the weather was perpetually overcast and on the chilly side, but still manageable. Lima was a good place to spend a couple days eating and wandering, and I would do the same if I visit Peru again.

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On April 16, the Center for Food Safety opened up shop in Honolulu with the goal of passing a law requiring GMO labeling. The last couple years have seen a healthy conversation on GMO labeling, especially here in Hawaii. The issue has been a lightning rod, polarizing the community and gaining national attention. It’s a discussion that continues to unfold.

Lorena Farrell, Executive Director of the Big Island Farm Bureau, registered the Hawaii Center for Food Safety as a nonprofit organization with the Hawaii Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs on April 3 and purchased the domains hawaiicenterforfoodsafety.org and .com on April 16.

The official Facebook page of the “Hawaii Center for Food Safety” makes it clear that they are not in any way associated with the Center for Food Safety. Under the technical banner of the loudest voice in opposition to GMOs, the page management shares links from biotech corporations.

Amid immediate outcry, including from the Center for Food Safety’s Hawaii office Executive Director Ashley Lukens, I wanted to help ensure that people engaging with the “Hawaii Center for Food Safety” know who is behind the branding.

Registered as the Hawaii Center for Food Safety (who magically appeared as the Center for Food Safety came to Hawaii and randomly picked the same name), Lorena Farrell is disseminating information counter to the Center for Food Safety’s mission. I shared two links to the official Hawaii Center for Food Safety Facebook page, one for the DCCA registration and one for the websites. I also posted the links as comments on the few other posts on the site, which was “liked” by under 30 people at the time.

Every interaction I had on the Hawaii Center for Food Safety Facebook page was deleted by its page management and I’ve been blocked from posting further.

People I admire and respect stand on both sides of the issue. It strikes me as odd for people that get along so well otherwise to have relationship-altering differences over something of this magnitude; we are talking about adding language to a label. The public deserves a transparent, legitimate discussion to arrive at a fair and scientific conclusion.   

Food trucks have taken off nationally over the last few years, but Portland is truly in a league of its own. Options range from your run of the mill Korean, Mexican and Thai to the more exotic Iraqi, Georgian (the republic, not the state), Mauritian, and Transylvanian. Due to time constraints, I was only able to scratch the surface of Portland’s dynamic food truck scene. I had to prioritize.

With the number one overall pick in the food cart draft, I went with Delicios Taste of Transylvania. As someone who appreciates food in all of its forms and is always seeking out the obscure, this was a no-brainer. I knew absolutely nothing about Transylvanian food and called a chef friend who happens to hail from Dracula’s hood. I ended up giving the phone to the friendly lady who does the cooking and they went back and forth in their native tongue. When she returned the phone to me, my buddy Nikk said “they seem legit.” He was right.

Romania’s #1 dish, a skinless sausage called mici (pronounced) was moist, flavorful and everything you could ask for in a reformed hunk of meat. Nikk told me to have the chimney cake and, although I’m not generally a fan of sweets, I followed my friend’s advice. It was perfection. The cake was light, tasty, with a nice caramelization on the outside that results from the unique device it’s baked in (there are only 3 of them in the country).

As often is the case, the people behind the food were just as good as what they were serving. The mother and son team who immigrated from Romania 14 years ago were incredibly nice, gracious, and really, really cool. I couldn’t have asked for more in a food truck experience.

My vegan girlfriend (I know, what are the chances?) and I ventured over to Chez Dodo, a Mauritian food truck that caters to people who avoid animal products as well as unabashed omnivores like me. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people from Mauritius in the past and had my suspicions…. Shyam, the chef at Chez Dodo, further supported my theory that people from Mauritius may well be the nicest on the planet. Fortunately for us, he had just returned from his motherland and brought back wonderfully delicious organic spices.

We started with taro fritters, which were balls of riced taro battered in tapioca flour and spices then deep fried. These vegan delights were served with a red and a green sauce and were absolutely scrumptious. We each ordered a spicy curry noodle dish and I had lamb in mine. The portions were huge and the flavors were like nothing I’ve ever had. It was spicy, complex and delicious. When you combine African, Creole, Chinese, Indian and French cuisine, wonderful things happen.

During our brief stay in Portland, we visited a couple other food stands and they were all great. I’m looking forward to going back and seeing what the next trip holds in terms of exotic deliciousness.

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