Solo Travel Holidays – A Feliz Navidad in Colombia

As of this year I have spent 4 total Christmases away from Hawaii. One on vacation with my family in California, one solo when I first moved to Boulder, and one with my then-boyfriend and our good friends in Longmont. That solo one was kind of lonely. My circumstances are really different now, but I had been feeling a little weird anticipating my solo-traveler Christmas. So, when I was invited to spend the holiday weekend with a Colombian family, I happily accepted.

A Chance Meeting in Cartagena

This invitation was the product of a chance meeting in Cartagena. I was walking along the battlements of the historic colonial city center, when I met a guide named Henry. He is a small guy with big charisma, mid-50s with a short goatee beard and a shaved head under a Yankees cap. He walks with a limp and speaks excellent English from living in New York City for a long time in his early adulthood. After chatting for a few minutes, he pitched his tour. I got a good vibe from him, so I accepted, and we spent a couple of hours walking around together, with him animatedly telling me in very clear, slow-paced Spanish, about the history of the city. (I often find that Spanish speakers who speak a second language are the easiest to understand. They understand what I’m going through and tailor their speech for my needs.) Tour highlights included Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memorial, where half of his ashes are (the other half are in Mexico), a bullfighting-arena-turned-shopping mall, and peeking through the iron-barred gate at Shakira’s house.

With Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s Nobel laureate author.
The former bullfighting arena

Henry and I got along well, and when he asked me about my plans in Colombia, I told him I was going to visit the Eje Cafetero, or coffee axis region. He told me that he’s from a city in that area called Pereira, and could put me in touch with his family. His sister is living there with their mother, and she rents a room in her house. He also invited me to join him and some friends for some beers at his apartment. I mentioned in a previous post that there were a lot of men in Cartagena who put me on edge, but Henry was an exception. He was super friendly and fun, but always maintained a professional demeanor (by which I mean, he was never creepy in the slightest) and I felt safe visiting his apartment the next day. I met him and his female friend at a bar where we watched the Pereira vs. Medellín football game, met his cat and her brand new kittens, and talked about life.

Henry’s hometown Pereira went on to win the national championship.
Henry’s kittens, just one day old!

Saying Yes to Life

When I left Cartagena, I was happy to go, but despite how I felt about some of my other experiences in the city, I felt fortunate to have made a new friend. I kept in touch with Henry and also his sister, making plans to visit Pereira. As my travels progressed through December, I was only planning about three days in advance, and the upcoming Christmas holiday was feeling like a bit of an inconvenient thing to plan around. I was thinking I’d probably visit Henry’s family right before Christmas, and then leave to spend the actual holiday alone in some quaint little town. But when I told Henry’s sister that plan, she suggested that I spend Navidad with them. I was feeling a little unsure–did she really mean that? In some cultures an offer like this is expected to be declined out of politeness. But I don’t get the impression that Colombians do that, and after consulting with a friend, I realized that the best travel experiences and memories come from saying yes to things like this. I re-structured my schedule and made plans to spend the holiday weekend in Pereira.

Arriving in Pereira

Three weeks after meeting Henry in Cartagena, I arrived at his sister’s house, after taking a 1-hour bus from Santa Rosa de Cabal. Turns out her name is actually Maryori, and Chusca is an in-family nickname, like how my family all calls my mom’s brother “Butch” when everyone else knows him as Steve. Maryori was waiting at the door when my taxi pulled up. Like her brother, she’s small but sturdy, with manicured nails and dark ringlets of hair piled in a high bun. She greeted me with a hug, as did her mother, and proceeded to show me around.

Maryori and her mother Flor (or doña Flor if you’re being particularly polite, which I was) currently live together in Maryori’s townhouse in Pereira. However, Maryori usually lives on the coast of Spain. I’d seen them on a video call with Henry while I was in Cartagena, but this was our first time meeting in person, and they welcomed me with open arms. I had a private room with my own bathroom in their home, which was a serious luxury after months of hostel life.

Navidad in Colombia

During my long weekend with Maryori and doña Flor, and I got to accompany them to three different family gatherings. Throughout the weekend, it was interesting to observe the ways that Christmas traditions are different in Colombia than the US. Where we estadounidenses tend to sequester ourselves with immediate family, the gatherings in Colombia are bigger, and the cadence of the traditional events is different.

The Nochebuena Fiesta

Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, is the most important gathering, and it includes things that people in the US usually do on the 25th, including opening gifts and a special family dinner with traditional dishes. On the 25th, there are still a lot of parties, but my impression is that the tone is less formal. It’s also not uncommon for people to go out to dance and party with their friends on both the 24th and 25th, which you won’t typically see in the US.

El Viaducto de Pereira

My favorite event of the weekend was the party we went to on Nochebuena. As the three of us rode over the brilliantly lit Viaducto bridge of Pereira in a taxi, Maryori asked me if this was my first Christmas in another country. I realized that I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but it was. I doubt it will be the last. For the party that evening, we went to the home of a sister of Maryori’s father, foña Flor’s late husband, where four generations of the family gathered for an evening of festivities. In my experience, Paisas (the people from that part of west-central Colombia) are really warm and welcoming, and this family was no exception. They graciously welcomed me into their Christmas celebration. There were 17 people present, including Maryori’s aunts, cousins, their partners, 5 great-grandchildren from ages 2 to 9, and Sachi de Hawái. Maryori was the only one who spoke English, but I was able to have nice conversations with several family members who complimented my Spanish, which always feels great.

Nochebuena marks the last night of novenas, which are nine nights of family gatherings leading up to Navidad. For novenas, there is a set of traditional prayers, one to be read each night. At this party, one of the adult cousins read the prayer from her smartphone, while the other members of the family recited and sang the prescribed responses. Midnight on the 24th marks the birth of of the Niño Dios (baby Jesus). One of most common elements of holiday decor in Colombia is an elaborate nativity scene, and at midnight on the 24th, Niño Dios is placed in his manger. The kids all opened their gifts. I identified the oldest, Rafaela, as a kindred spirit because of all the arts and crafts supplies she received. One of the presents she opened was a beading kit, and she made me a bracelet with my name. At midnight several neighbors set off fireworks, which we went outside to watch.

The food was delicious. For me, one of the biggest highlights of travel (and also life) is eating a lot of tasty food. For the whole Navidad weekend, I put aside my typical diet. In Colombia they eat a lot of meat, and a lot of deep-fried food, which are things I typically avoid. But I knew that it would be a pretty inconvenient/unreasonable request at these big Colombian family gatherings. This is why I call myself a “flexatarian,” and it’s been a good mindset for traveling. I’m mostly a vegetarian, but I’ll eat fish a few times a month (more when I’m in Hawaii). If there’s a dish with meat that I really want to try, or if it’s just too difficult to stick to vegetarianism, I just eat some meat and don’t stress. At the Nochebuena party, the food highlights included empanadas stuffed with a mixture of meat and potatoes, tamales wrapped in plantain leaves and full of chicken, pork, and hard-boiled eggs, and the traditional desserts: buñelos, which are small balls of deep-fried dough, and natilla, a kind of custard. The night before at Maryori’s aunt’s house, we also ate a picada (basically a big shared platter of various foods), which included chorizo, ribs, plantains, chicharrón, and arepa, all fried in oil over an open fire.

A delicious, meat-heavy tamal for nochebuena
Maryori’s cousin preparing la picada at a small gathering on the 23rd
La picada

We stayed at the Nochebuena party until nearly 2:00 AM, and the next morning I slept in before we headed to a late lunch. We ate at a popular restaurant and had arepas de choclo con queso, and more chorizo. Then we walked down the road to the property of some cousins from doña Flor’s side of the family, where there was a big, casual gathering of extended family and some friends. By that point in the weekend, I was a little socially overstimulated, so I kept to myself more.

Mild Food Poisoning is Just Part of La Experiencia

In the middle of the night I woke up to some painful stomach cramps, similar to what usually happens when I eat deep-fried food in the US. But unlike those experiences, a quick vomit didn’t resolve the problem. I took some meds, which I think helped me sleep a bit, but the next morning my stomach pain was still pretty sharp. I went down to talk to Maryori and doña Flor, who were both also feeling ill–we suspected the restaurant chorizo. Maryori had made me breakfast, but I couldn’t eat anything. I languished in the living room for a little while before going back upstairs to nap. By about 2:00 PM I was feeling well enough to get up and pack my bags. I spent a little while hanging out with Maryori (doña Flor had left to visit her sister), and then I ordered an Uber, which took me to the bus terminal, where I caught a bus to a small town called Filandia.

The offending chorizo

The Power and Beauty of Serenditpity

Despite the minor food poisoning, I feel so grateful for my experience in Pereira. One of the things that feels so cool about the travel lifestyle is that everything is laden with serendipity. Every whim might result in something special. Every person you meet, every unique opportunity is something you might’ve completely missed if you’d arrived 15 minutes later, or decided on a different bus departure, hostel, or lunch restaurant. My life right now is like a delicate vine of intersecting coincidences and the beautiful fruits they bear. An afternoon wandering around alone on the battlements of Cartagena turned into new friendships and a Colombian family Christmas experience that I’ll never forget.

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