My Year in Books (2011)

I want this life.
The end of the year is a time to look back and try to be reflective.  Good for you if you look back and try to figure out if you've been a good person, blah blah blah.  What I really care about is: What Did I Read? 

Every year I start with lofty intentions. This year, yet again, I promised myself that I would read War and Peace. I even bought it! And, surprise surprise, I didn't read it - yet again. I did, however, use it as an extremely useful bedroom doorstop during windy days (true story).  I plan on reading it one day, but that's the thing about reading -what you intend to read, and where you actually go with it is completely different.

Some brilliant writers have taken on this topic, including the hilarious Sara Nelson in her book So Many Books, So Little Time, or my hero Nick Hornby, in his columns What I'm Reading, where he documents what he has bought vs. what he is reading.  (Funny how the two never match up).  I bought tons of books this year; it was certainly a year of good intentions.  But now I look back at my shelves and they are loaded down with serious books like Ingrid Bettancourt's memoir or The Count of Monte Cristo all the way through impulse buys like James Franco's short story collection, all unread.  I have to wonder what I really did with my time.

To date (I have a week left) I have read 37 books.  So how did 2011, A Year In Books, work out? 

Books Read in 2011:
Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill (gift from a friend. first book of a year that did not end prosperously, fyi)
Mating, Norman Rush (not instructional)
One Day, David Nicholls
Me, Ricky Martin (any celeb bio that doesn't include a personal photo montage is a shame to the genre)
The Faithful Spy, Alex Berenson
War on Error, Melody Moezzi
No Lifeguard on Duty, Janice Dickinson
Attached, Amir Levine & Rachel Heller
Reinventing Mona, Jennifer Coburn
The Big Love, Sarah Dunn
Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara?, Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy (Who the hell IS that? I can't remember)
Why Men Love Bitches, Sherry Argov
The Confessions of Rick James, Rick James
I Am the Messenger, Mark Zusak
You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs, Laurie Graff
The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman
Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman
LaToya, LaToya Jackson
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling
Book of Illusions, Paul Auster (proof that friends can make stellar recommendations)
Boy Meets Girl, Meg Cabot (she never fails. EVER.)
The Male Brain, Louann Brizendine (there is one!)
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
The Maze Runner, James Dashner (precursor to The Hunger Games phenomenon. meh)
Life As I Know It Has Been "Finger Lickin Good", Colonel Sanders (best title)
The Boy Next Door, Meg Cabot
Donut Days, Lara Zielin
Bossypants, Tina Fey (great writer. weird cover)
The First Time, Cher
Everyone Loves You When You're Dead, Neil Strauss (great concept- "outtakes" from famous interviews)
A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Happy Birthday or Whatever..., Annie Choi
Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read in Colombia!)
My Booky Wook, Russell Brand
Sky of Red Poppies, Zohreh Ghahremani

Now, I'm not saying I was a brain trust this year. I alternated between heavy heavy lit and books so light I'm almost embarrassed to list them here.  For example, a solid chunk of the books were for Celebrity Trash Bio Book Club, the greatest book club of all time.  Now twelve times a year I now read the life of a celebrity I wouldn't otherwise care about.  These are always embarrassingly absorbing page-turners that leave me liking someone who the public disdains for some reason or another, and being able to defend them in conversation with minutae that requires me to then admit my sources. Shameful. But they make reading fun, and that's what it's about.

WORST BOOK:  One Day, David Nicholls. I had this recommended and had picked it up and put it back down so many times, then dove in.  I wanted to love it. Girl meets boy. Ooooh! Wait, girl is slightly nerdy and guy is wild child and guys doesn't notice she's there and she slides into girl best friend role? Cool, I could have saved $15 and read my own diary. Jeez.  But this is more the worst book of the year for false hopes and expectations, and an eventual movie adaptation starring Anne Hathaway.

BEST FICTION:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell simply blew my mind.  Someone had described it as a Russian doll of novels, and that's exactly what it is.  This was closely followed by Visit from the Goon Squad, which was a more widely recognized, perhaps more easily digestible novel using some of the same techniques.  Both books excited me about the potential of good literature all over again.  Mating was also fantastic, but is a lot of work (as is Cloud Atlas). But very smart, and very underlineable; a play on anthropologist studying a relationship (see quotes below).

BEST NONFICTION:  War on Error by Melody Moezzi. I had met Melody, a frequent writer for Ms Magazine, The Huffington Post, and a zillion other places, through friends and finally got to sit down and read her book front to back.  And that's how it happened because it's a swift, highly intelligent read.  A compilation of interviews, it paints an eloquent and engaging view of the breadth of Muslims; how people personalize the faith and interpret it in their lives across the country.  It couldn't be more timely or more well-written.

Also (and on the complete end of the spectrum), The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene. A friend had recommended it and it was absolutely fantastic.  It studies the greatest lovers and seducers through history- whether literal or politicians, etc., and breaks the tales down for analysis. Equal parts history, inspiration, and how-to.  Incredibly readable.

SURPRISE BOOK OF THE YEAR: My mom's SKY OF RED POPPIES.  True story.  I had read many early drafts and finally got to sit down with the published, final, completely edited, bound version of the book this year.  I was engaged by learning more about the hushed society of Iran in the 1960s, and I found myself laughing out loud or being engaged by passages I had read time and again.  Then I turned the last page in tears.  It's so rare for fiction to be touching in that way. It's humbling when you know the person who wrote it.

MOST EMBARRASSING READ: Uh... anything from celebrity trash bio book club?  With honorable mention to LaToya Jackson's biography.  And yes, I read it in public. And yes, I'd do it all over again.

WRITERS I'LL KEEP READING:  In addition to those mentioned in these shout-outs, Ayelet Waldman and Paul Auster impressed. I finished both of their books sure that at some point I would pick up others by them.

BOOKS BY OTHER PEOPLE THAT I WILL PICK UP INSPIRED BY THIS YEAR AS A RESULT OF THESE READS:  Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist mentioned in The Art of Seduction; I want to read more about her. Will read Michael Chabon (finally) now that I've read his wife Waldman. After reading Rick James trash talk Prince (he says he stole all his moves), I will pick up the unauthorized Prince bio for sure and see what he has to say about Rick. Will read about the Branch Davidians/Waco (c/o Klosterman's essay about it) 


"The closest you can come in life to experiencing free will is when you do things at random." Mating, p13

"He would say only slightly facetiously that the main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading."  Mating, Norman Rush, p 194.

"Liars are the enemy. They transcend class, sex, and nation. They make everything impossible." Mating, p315

"You fall in love with a person because your subconscious likes something about their subconscious, and it isn't until much later that you discover that that thing your subconscious liked was the fact that this person was built to hurt you in precisely the way you most fear."  The Big Love, Sarah Dunn, p146

"Keep on unfolding, no matter what."  The Big Love, p 225

"Boredom is the ultimate social evil." The Art of Seduction, p130

"No one is naturally mysterious, at least not for long." The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene, p190

"People secretly yearn to be led astray by someone who knows where they are going." The Art of Seduction, p315

"No one is born timid; timidity is a protection we develop.  If we never stick our necks out, if we never try, we will never have to suffer the consequences of failure or success."  The Art of Seduction, p410

"Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say, it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that." The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, p107

"Sometimes what matters isn't what one gives but what one gives up." The Shadow of the Wind, p186

"Life has enough torturers as it is, without you going around moonlighting as a Grand Inquisitor against yourself." The Shadow of the Wind, p319

"Waiting is the rust of the soul." The Shadow of the Wind, p315

"Inspiration gives no warnings" Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, p4

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BOOKS THIS YEAR:  That all the rich magnates of the world had the same secret philosophy, and one beautiful leatherbound version later, I'm not sure I know what it is.   That there are a lot of people writing books about playing hard to get.  That I much prefer to read light chick lit about girls who don't have the slightest clue how to play hard to get and still have it work out for them.  That LaToya is less Michael's sister and (as my own sister puts it) "just another crazy fan".  That I must pick my YA carefully; not every book is the Hunger Games.  That Tina Fey and Russell Brand are excellent writers.  That sometimes when a book wins every freaking award out there, it actually deserves them.  That I need to read much, much more.

I just signed up for so there's probably gonna be a little more rhyme and reason, and even more page-turning in 2012. Can't wait! : The Lazy Man's Flash Mob

As you know by now, I like a good challenge.  I am one of those weirdos who actually keeps a bucket list.  I'm very much a "Why not?" person when it comes to trying new things (except jumping out of planes. Planes are my chosen form of transportation, people.)
My friend-author-philosopher-hero Jon mentioned to me that he was going to read 50 books and watch 50 movies in the coming year.

Are you kidding me? Are you crazy?  Who has that kind of time?

Wait... I want in too.

And then I thought of a few friends I thought would enjoy it -- so we set to creating the Fifty Fifty challenge. And guess what, you're invited. 

On the website, we each offered a post about why we were doing this.  Jon said he was doing it because he needs to read more.  He's always reading!  But, as per his post, he confessed that he doesn't finish everything he starts, and he tends to read a lot of articles instead of full books.  He also confesses to having a spreadsheet about what books he's reading, but that's neither here nor there.

The thing is, everyone has their own reason for taking a challenge on.  Maybe you're bored.  Maybe you want cheaper entertainment.  Maybe you feel guilty about all those books you bought.  Maybe you have way too much time on your hands.  Maybe you have insomnia.  Maybe you need something to make you feel better about how many hours you spend watching E!

If something in you is inspired to join us, I hope you'll drop by the website, add your name to the list, and skim the "rules".  Introduce yourself, start prepping your list (or, don't make a list at all and see where the year takes you).  Tell your friends, make them hold you to it.  [For a bonus round, seal your deal with this handy little app we made. <---- shameless plug by author] -- a mob of people, all doing the same thing.  But here's the clincher- you don't even have to leave your couch!  (I know, that sold me too)

Now, I didn't say it would be easy.  Even though they'd take less time, I envision myself rushing on the film side in December 2012.  I am having repeated visions of someone opening my apartment door to find me holed up a la Howard Hughes, watching movie after movie in a desperate attempt to catch up before the deadline.  Either way, it will be fun.

Let me know what you'll be reading/watching in 2012, and if you're up for it, tell me why.
50 books. 50 movies. 1 you. 1 year.
Let's do this.

My post is included below.


Once upon a time there was a girl who read everything she said she wanted to read and watched every movie that had been recommended to her. And she lived happily ever after, or something like that.

See, it's really all about setting intentions.

Whenever people walk into my home for the first time, they say "Wow, you have so many books."  There are books stacked on my kitchen counter, in stacks in my bedroom, laying by the fireplace, exploding from 2 bookshelves.  There is barely enough room for everything I want to read in my life - literally (oh, the puns!). So this is the year I'm going to do it.

One day when I was being a snob and talking about how I always prefer to read, a friend stopped me and pointed out that books and films are important counterparts.  The bookworm in me was horrified, but quickly realized she's right; you probably don't have a completely fulfilled cultural life if you're engaging in one and not the other.  It's about finding the right movies to watch; just like it's about the books that keep you up at night.

I'm looking forward to using this challenge to inspire myself to knock things off my list that have been there forever.  To finish my favorite author Milan Kundera's bibliography.  To lie around and take in classic films I'm ashamed not to have seen yet (Auntie Mame and Sunset Blvd come to mind). To blow through celeb bios that I have yet to prioritize the time to read (David Hasselhoff, I'm on my way!)  To read some of the classics I have never touched.  To watch Gladiator and Braveheart so I can stop giving blank looks to men who refer to them constantly. 

More than the challenge to myself, I'm looking forward to hearing and learning about what other people (you!) are reading and watching, 50 times over, rinse and repeat.  Basically I'm in it to see what happens when we devote a year to driving ourselves absolutely berzerk trying to get it done.  Let the intellectual experiments begin...

Start stretching!

Don't Mind the Gap

Recently two stories have highlighted the ever-widening generation gap.  I am on the losing (read: laughing) end of this.

Scene 1: Friend, in a car driving kids she volunteers with.

They put in a cd of the song Workout by J Cole.  She strikes up conversation with them about it, saying "Cool that he used Paula Abdul, huh? Straight up now tell me!..."

One of the girls turns to her and says "What? Paula Abdul sings??"


Scene 2: A friend and I are talking about Halloween with another friend's daughter.

My friend, to the kid:  "Tell Lilly about your costume- and how you were Madonna for Halloween!" 

Kid: "No, I was a graveyard fairy*."
        (*note: No, we do not know what this is either)

My friend: "No! I saw you!"

Kid: "I was a graveyard fairy."

My friend:  "...But you had the gloves. You were Madonna!"

Kid: "I don't even know who Madonna IS!"

The Heart of Rock n Roll

Some part of me thought it would be fun to run a half marathon in the month of December in the desert.  The key with this sort of inspiration is to sign up before you can rethink what you're doing.  Which I did.  Then, before I knew it, it was the start of December.  I was fresh off a vacation where I had eaten my way through my target country.  I hadn't been on a treadmill in weeks.  I had run 8 miles at my peak, so I had to cough up another 5 in order to cross a finish line... at night... in the freezing cold.

Well, I did it, and my badge of honor is my ghetto limp.  Just in case you are so inspired, here's my shorthand guide on How to Survive a Race.


1) Pick a race that actually interests you.

I don't mean the distance- pick a course you'll enjoy seeing as you do the run.  This makes all the difference when you're at mile 9 and want to die.  I have done three half marathons- America's Finest City in San Diego, one across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and (now) Rock n Roll Las Vegas.  The key with RnRLV was that they close off the Strip at night and let all 40,000 of you run like madmen down the middle.  It's these little perks, these unusual settings, or views you wouldn't normally get, that will motivate you to keep going.

2)  Get inspired.

You need inspiration.  Actually, what you need is emotional blackmail.

We accomplished this using a technique I had read about somewhere- we dedicated each of the 13 miles to someone or something.  I included people I love dearly who have passed away, family members, friends who are going through tough times, friends who are just really supportive, organizations that inspire me, and of course myself (mile 13).  We wrote our lists on our arms in permanent marker, so as we passed mile markers, we'd roll up our sleeves, look, and chug ahead.

3)  Find someone else who has done it, ie. "the bar setter".

Find someone who has done something similar and use them to remind yourself if they can do it, you can too.  For me, this person was Dawn Dais, author of The Nonrunner's Guide to Marathon Training for Women.  Using herself to set the (self-proclaimed low) bar for fellow runners is completely intentional, and she uses 200+ pages of self-deprecation to remind you of what you're capable of doing if you wipe off the Cheeto dust and stand (for starters).

And it's true, so much of this is mind over matter.  The book is about Dawn's journey from couch potato to marathoner, and is full of hilarious wisdom for how to get yourself over the finish line no matter who you are when you start.  You will need to rehydrate, because you will laugh til you cry while reading it.  The night before our race, we read aloud from it in the hotel room. Yes, it's that funny.

(By the way, the title is a misnomer, because nothing in the book is specifically for women.    It's so good that I bought my brother a copy.  You'll hear about him in a second.)

4)  Find the right attitude.

I was running with two people (my best friend and my brother), neither of whom had run a long-distance race.  They had to go on faith that when I said it's mind over matter, I meant it.  (My brother: "At what point do you admit there is just more matter than mind?")  At the Expo the day before the race, we played into the runner's nerves economy and purchased a number of things we probably didn't need, including some cute moisture-wicking Bondi headbands.

Cyrus picked out one that would become our motto throughout the run, inspiring not just us, but every runner we passed (or, in more cases, passed us), "Suck it up, Cupcake."  For those of you paying close attention, the right attitude is just to have fun with the race.  For the 6 miles that my brother and I ran in lockstep during the race, he continued to keep the right attitude, playing air drums and generally just having the time of his life. So much so that a woman found us after the race, as we were walking back into the hotel, and said that she had followed him, his hair, his headband, and his attitude, and paced herself through the race -- and thanked him. 

5)  Run with people who will keep you going.

My best friend and I handed each other Gu drops, jellybeans, Dixie cups of water, and doses of motivation as we hobbled along the route.  My brother made me laugh with his air drumming and the huge smile across his face as he made it further than he imagined he could.

They key is to run with people who know whether they should stay with you, leave you to run your own pace, stop and stretch with your, and just how to make you feel good about the fact that you're there at all.  In my case it was important to have someone who I can psychically communicate with using minimal additional motion, ie. only eyerolling.  Also important: run with people who will join you in toasting your weight's worth of bacon cheeseburgers when you're done.

In addition to whoever's on the course with you, maybe you'll be lucky and have a tech-savvy satellite supporter.  My sister had no interest in slogging down the Strip, but she might as well have been by my side through the race.  She told me to download an app so she could track where I was and send encouragement.  (as an aside: this app didn't work, and when she contacted customer service, they told her we should both reinstall- because, you know, I was really going to stop at mile 7 and REINSTALL THEIR WONKY APP)

There's something to be said for looking down at your phone (yes, it was attached to my hip. Literally this time) and seeing "woo hoo! go you!" or a picture of an adorable pet holding up motivational posters. 

6)  Make a good playlist.

Mine featured James Brown's Living in America. It's a no-brainer that you should lean heavily on the Rocky theme song, Eye of the Tiger, The Final Countdown, and draw liberally from the Footloose soundtrack.  I have heard more than one story of people's stereos/iPods, etc getting stuck.  In Dawn's book, the weekend she ran the marathon in Hawaii it just happened to be Milkshake weekend. Yikes. On our race, Jessica's iPod limited her songlist during the race to only 30 of the songs.  As a result, she never wants to hear Single Ladies again (fact: I wouldn't have wanted to hear it in the first place).  All I'm saying is: choose carefully.

before you know it, you'll have one of these
7)  Accept what is given.

I'm not trying to be all zen here.  I mean it literally- accept what is given. They don't hand out water and Gu on the course for their own good.  By rehydrating periodically and injecting (not literally) carbs into your system, you will get the bursts of energy that you need when the going gets tough (the tough get going, see #6, above)  Don't leave the volunteer standing there holding a cup like a chump- grab it and say thank you.  Even if all you want to do is swipe the table of cups clear and lie down on it.

8)  Think less, just put one foot in front of the other, press play, and go.

Girl Talk, Real Talk: The Regrets Edition

After one of those weird nights where you spend too much time on Facebook and realize that 99% of the population is engaged or married or propagating the human race while you have been, um, updating your blog, tonight I confessed to one of my best girlfriends that it sometimes feels like other people move forward, and I stay in the same place.

Her:  But you are not stagnate. Just bc you're not married doesn't mean you haven't had amazing life experiences along the way. You just ran a freakin marathon!

Me:  You know what I mean ;)  If there is a nuclear war, my marathons don't hide with me.

Her:  Yeah I do know what you mean. And knowing the guys we date, they'd throw us out of the nuclear bomb shelter.

That's what your girlfriends are there for, folks.  Make sure to keep them on speed dial.

Viva Colombia!

If one more person had said, "You're going to COLOMBIA? Why???" I would have gone crazy.  Now that I'm back, the real question is why haven't you gone yet? 

Colombia has long been on my list of places to visit, so recently when some college girlfriends were batting around getaway destinations, I threw my suggestion into the list.  I was beyond floored when they accepted, but I knew better than to question my luck.

The streets of Cartagena
Rarely in my life have I gone somewhere with such little frame of reference.  (Frame of reference: coffee, soccer, Shakira, coffee) On the upside, we were ready to completely discover, on the downside, we didn't have much of a clue what we were doing.  If you were prey to any of the lame stereotypes that exist for this country, you might be put off, or even worried.  Fortunately, we were too busy extracting ourselves from work and life to marinate in misconceptions.  We nailed the basics early on: our route and the places we'd stay.  We decided that we would skip the major cities (Bogota and Medellin) on this trip and land directly in Cartagena.  From there we would explore the city for a few days and then wander further north along the coast.  All systems go.

Now, you can admit it if you're not entirely sure where Colombia is on a map.  You should know before I go any further.  So here you go, don't worry, I won't tell. 

Colombia is the gateway for many of the continent's imports and exports (go ahead, make your coke jokes- I'll wait).  We began in Cartagena, a beautiful port town at the northwest.  Tourists tend to go directly into the old walled city, which is what we did for starters. It's beautiful, and it's safe, and Anthony Bourdain had been there.

Courtesy of the trusty internets, we connected with the incomparable local guide Marelvy Peña-Hall.  Marelvy is a local tour expert fluent in three languages and equally able to guide you through her nation's history in any one of them.  We went to La Popa for a beautiful sunset and a vantage point from which you could take in the magnitude of this port city.  From up high at La Popa (which used to be a convent- 99% of what we saw in Cartagena
my first cup
was!), you could still hear the music pulsing from the city down below.  Spectacular.  She took us for our first cup of Juan Valdez coffee, ambled with us through Portal de los Dulces (a street of homemade sweets vendors), and showed us a few more buildings that used to be convents...  We wandered the streets with Marelvy as she told us tales of Simon Bolivar, and pointed out landmarks in Gabriel Garcia Marquez tales.

Following that, we spent two more days in Cartagena "eating our way through Colombia", as I called it.  You're not doing the city justice unless you do.  (Details and recommendations follow)

From Cartagena we journeyed 4 hours north in a van.  Transport in Colombia is privatized, so you reserve a van and they pick you up.  Think of an airport shuttle, but, in this particular case, the "shuttle" was full of people who do not understand the concept of "light packing", "personal space", or "don't sing out loud in small spaces if you are not paid to do so".   And you're in the van with them for hours.  With no bathroom breaks.  It was like a travel reality show, where the award is finding out who is going to handle being incontinent in their old age better.

To answer the questions that are probably arising in your mind about safety, it was visible that Colombia is taking steps to make the country safer for tourists.  As you'd drive the country roads and highways there were soldiers/officers every so often, always with a rifle, but they looked so relaxed that there was no reason for alarm. It was a reassuring presence rather than anything else.  At no point were we warned against wandering - some said to watch our purses, but even at the national park we were told it was fine to go it alone (and we did).  Common sense seemed to be all you needed.

Casa de Isabella, Santa Marta
view from Eco Hostal Yuluka
We arrived in Santa Marta, the oldest city in South America.  The city was a small, intimate beach town, but housed an adorable boutique hotel called Casa de Isabella, whose breakfast is, alone, worth the visit there (read my review here).  Their staff redefined hospitable, as you can read in my Tripadvisor rave (always pay the recommendations forward!)  Santa Marta is good for eating (a theme throughout the region, we learned), and we walked by the beach and took in the views at the port.  It was a quieter town, but we enjoyed the history and the calm.  We could feel ourselves inching away from tourist havens and further into the arms of an authentic Colombia (not to be confused with inching into the arms of an authentic Colombian, which did not happen despite daydreams to the contrary).

Eco Hostal Yuluka
From Santa Marta we continued a half hour north to the outskirts of Parque Tayrona. For our visit to the Parque we stayed at the incredibly unique Eco Hostal Yuluka, a set of charming, deluxe cabins (think air conditioning and Direct TV) within gorgeous plants and moments away from the entrance.  It's Gilligan's Island meets a bed and breakfast.  The owners, Wilmar and Nelli, are a lovely young couple who double as fantastic tour guides; without them we would have missed one of my favorite parts of the trip.  There isn't a ton happening at the hotel; this is where you'll come to relax after your hike, sip some Colombian beers and play cards with your girlfriends like the cowboys you are.  Note: they don't have hot water.  Prepare to spongebathe!

Once our bags were dropped in our beautiful accommodations, we prepared to enter the famed national Parque Tayrona.  Picture the lush green of the lush Sierra Nevadas ending in a perfectly turquoise Caribbean Ocean. Take that, Hawaii!  Folks who only make it as far as Cartagena or one of the big cities, I hate to break it to you but you are missing out on a global treasure.  Photos do not do this place justice - it's heaven incarnate.  We hiked in through el bosque, the forest path, arriving at the first beach in about 45 minutes.  The first stop is a large campground with a couple of casual restaurants and hammocks tied up in every which direction; it is common for travelers rent a hammock and sleep on the beach.  (Travelers who do not like air conditioning and Direct TV, I guess.)

From there, you hike 15-30 minute intervals before arriving at another outlet to a beach.  These beach stops dot the coastline -- we hiked about 4 of the beaches before turning around.  Because we went at low season for tourists (November, the end of rainy season), we passed other travelers but didn't deal with the hordes we were told exist during high season.  It also meant we could wear bikinis with abandon, a nice perk.

After galavanting on the beach (said galavanting was punctuated by my screams of pain as I stepped on and into every rock available in that region of the Caribbean).  Once we were adequately sunburned and sea watered, we began the hike home.  Rather than return the way we came, we left through la playa, the beach path.  This path, contrary to name, isn't on the beach, but heads a different direction from the beach, and felt a bit more jungly than the forest, which was incredible given that it couldn't have been more than a half mile away.  Rather than just trees, we walked through webs of vines to find our way back to civilization.  More tips on that below.

Our second day in the Parque Tayrona region, we didn't actually go into the park.  Our host at the Eco Hostal Yuluka recommended that we visit La casada, the local waterfalls.  This required a walk along a river for about a half hour and some scrambling up rocks, but was worth it and was actually my favorite portion of the trip.  For the afternoon we were whisked away to a private beach that we had entirely to ourselves- hammocks were tied up for us.  I laid in mine reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rocking back and forth in the wind as another beautiful Colombian storm began to brew, and just taking it all in.
La cascada


* Learn some basic Spanish.  Time to dust off your high school Spanish, kids.  While some people are enthusiastic about practicing their English with you, in the outlying cities English is rare and sign language will only get you so far.

* Befriend a few trusted figures, for example the concierge at your hotel- get all the details you can.  The more specific you are able to be about what you want to do, the easier it will be for people to give you recommendations.  Colombians are extremely warm and helpful, but don't make them do all the work. 

*  Be prepared to eat lots of seafood.  The seafood and produce in Colombia are incredibly fresh, and chefs are eager to show it off in their cuisine. Whether it's a fancy restaurant or a casual hut in the jungle, chefs tend to be liberal with the meat portions.  This is your chance to try smoked stingray, and I'm warning you that it's unexpectedly delicious.  In short, if you are a vegetarian, you may want to preview your food choices or at least get comfortable asking for your food modifications in Spanish so there is no confusion.  

*Take an umbrella... but be prepared to leave it there.  For some reason unknown to me, I was allowed to take my umbrella IN to Colombia but it was forcibly removed upon my exit.  There may actually be an umbrella shortage there.  During rainy season, the storms are long and powerful.  Forget whatever you've experienced before- this is the stuff flash floods are made of.  For us, they tended to happen from about 5-8pm, when it was already dark.  We took shelter and enjoyed wine and cheese in our hotel to kill time before late dinner (Colombian style).  If you have curly hair, take a helmet or other hair-restraining device. This weather situation is serious, and your vanity should not take the potential for humidity lightly.
      • the walls around the old city, Cartagena


        * Take your time wandering the old walled city.  Know going into things that the city is difficult to navigate- street names change from block to block, so you'll be working with sight more than names.  Become comfortable getting lost and asking for directions. 

        *  Consider hiring a local tour guide to maximize your experience.  Actually, don't hire just any guide, book early with Marelvy Peña-Hall.  Her big smile and her customized tours are an essential part of a proper visit to Cartagena.  You can trust her to steer you away from the tourist traps, to help you navigate the streets of the town like a local, and to patiently answer even the most inane questions about her beautiful town and country.
          • Sunset at La Popa
          • Catch sunset at La Popa
            • Prepare to eat. When I came back, I joked that I had "eaten my way through Colombia"... except it wasn't really a joke.  We went armed with a list of restaurants, so I'll spare you and share the best of here. 
              • Do not miss La Vitrola- make a reservation because this old world candlelight restaurant is well worth an evening, and everyone seems to know it.  Book it first thing upon your arrival, perhaps as a last dinner.  The seafood casserole will change your life.   
              • *  Try at least one arepa, a cornmeal patty often stuffed with egg or similar, and chorizo -- yum!  Everywhere will have them. An arepa, a sausage, and a bold cup of coffee will remind you why you traveled so far and what we're missing out with when we have crappy diet yogurt for breakfast.  

            * The traditional drink is agua diente, which, like many knock-you-on-your-butt liquors, is licorice scented.  But tradition is tradition.

            * Stop by La Cevicheria for the best ceviche in town, a cuisine that highlights the freshness of the seafood available to you in Colombia.  If it was good enough for Anthony Bourdain -- and me -- it's good enough for you.

            * Enjoy a fun fusion dinner at San Pedro or Juan Del Mar; both restaurants have unusual dishes like curried shrimp, served in beautiful settings where you can relax and people watch to your heart's delight.

            * Lounge around at the Hotel Santa Clara, the Sofitel.  It's (act surprised) an old convent that has been restored into a gorgeous tropical hotel.  The weekend brunch is delicious and filling, and even taking in a coffee sitting in their courtyard is beautiful.  They have a bar that plays music on the weekends, but if you followed my advice you'll be too full to do anything except roll yourself back to your hotel.
              Parque Tayrona


              * Try to have someone drive you IN to the park; otherwise you're adding a few extra kilometers on to your hike by starting at the opening gate. Trust me on this one.

              * Take the forest path in and the beach path out- different paths offer you completely different environments.

              * Avoid walking at dark unless you want bats swooping down on your troop as you wander. Oh, and the park closes.

              * Guides are available (but not necessary) to take you into the park. It's an extremely well-marked park and gives you signs to indicate what % of the way to the beach you are.

              * Don't swim in the water unless it's an area they've indicated it's ok to do so. The undertow is brutal here and over 100 lives have been lost.  Signs are put up every so often to warn you of the same, but in case you're busy enjoying the views and not reading signs, DO NOT SWIM unless you're explicitly told it's ok to do so.

              * Use a pair of shoes you are willing to sacrifice.  Somewhere in a garbage can in the innards of Colombia is a well-worn pair of Asics.  The tropical rain turns the terrain here to thick mud, and you are going to come home absolutely covered in it.

              * Take bug spray.  Use it.  Prepare to be eaten anyhow, but realize it's a fraction of what it would have been.  

              *  Take water.  There are food stands every so often, but you don't want to totally depend on them. A small bottle of water and even a snack would be good, but if you can buy fresh squeezed juice on the beach, don't miss out.

              While you're in the area, don't miss La Cascada, the local waterfalls.  It's outside of the park but is well worth a few hours of your day to wander in along the beautiful river and to scramble up the rocks and take in the view.  Travel lightly for that portion, or you too may donate personal belongings to gods of the waterfall (RIP Tara's glasses, 2011)

                          me & my Bon Voyage Journal / Hotel Santa Clara, Cartagena