We arrived in Colombia’s zona cafetera (coffee zone) after a hellish ten hour drive up, across, and down the central mountain chain of the Andes. Although the mountains were gorgeous, the one lane road that sinuosly winded through them was steep, narrow, and crammed with huge, slow trucks. Some of the turns were so tight that we had to stop and wait while oncoming trucks took up both lanes around the turns. Thanks to Aron’s fabulous driving we made it safely to Salento in only ten hours and never wanted to drive again.
Salento is a cheerful little town in the coffee zone with brightly painted shutters and a friendly vibe. The surrounding green mountains create a beautiful setting and provide a wealth of outdoor opportunities.
We set up camp at La Serrana, an eco farm in the hills just outside of town and got so comfortable that we stayed for nearly a week. When we weren’t busy just hanging out and enjoying the spectacular views, we went on some nice hikes, did a little mountain biking, and ate $2 trout burgers with pineapple sauce while strolling through the town.
The highlight of our stay was a hike through the Valley de Cocora in the Nevados National Park. The path traversed rolling green pastures with grazing cows before following a creek through the forest and climbing up the side of the mountain to reveal magnificent views of the valley below. The area is known for its abundance of palmas de cera, or wax palms, that shoot up out of the ground like candles. They are the national tree of Colombia and are supposedly the tallest palm trees in the world.
Deciding to skip Medellin, one of Colombia’s largest cities, since it would add ten hours to the massive amount of driving we had already done in the country, we headed south for Ecuador. To break up the long drive to the border, we stopped in Popoyan, a pleasant city of white colonial buildings and many churches. We had a nice evening strolling around and shared a lovely dinner with our new friend Ines, a traveler from Belgium we had picked up in Salento.
Just before crossing the border into Ecuador, we stopped at the Las Lajas Sanctuary, a spectacular church built into the side of a mountain to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin Mary. The story supposedly says that in 1754, a mother and her mute daughter saw the Virgin Mary between the mountains and the daughter began to speak. Since then, the location has become a popular pilgrimage spot. People from around the world visit the site to ask for miracles and the stone walls along the path to the church are lined with messages of thanks from those that have been healed by the Virgen of Las Lajas.
Fifteen minutes down the road we crossed the border into Ecuador without any hassle and weaved through the Andes mountains to Otavalo, a city famous for it’s market selling everything from live animals to fruits and vegetables to fake alpaca wool blankets. After driving through the patchwork created by farms reaching up the mountainsides, we found a lovely place to camp above the city which provided spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and the city below. We wandered down to the Saturday market where we bought fresh veggies and sacks of sweet strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries for a dollar.
After our visit to town, we drove up a rough dirt road to the top of the surrounding mountains to visit Laguna de Mojanda, a gorgeously blue lake in the crater of an old volcano. We struggled to take a full breath at the extreme altitude of 13,000 ft as we walked the trail through the paramo, or high altitude grasslands, around the lake while and marveled at yet another majestic setting.
The chilly high altitude temperature created the perfect opportunity to cook up some hot soup with fresh vegetables from the market. Overlooking the distant glow of the city below, we enjoyed a cozy night of dinner and a movie in the van.
South America has revealed itself as a continent filled to the brim with endless mountains, lakes, and rivers, so naturally we visited another lake in the vicinity the next day. Laguna de Cuicocha is another beautiful crater lake nestled in an old volcano. The name means Lago de Cuy in the old Kichwa indigenous language which translates to Guinea Pig Lake in English, supposedly due to the shape of the two islands in the center of the lake. We hiked up along the rim of the volcano and enjoyed beautiful views of the surrounding volcanoes and the valley below.
Next, we headed south toward Quito, crossing the equator into the southern hemisphere! A first for both of us. A different sky, new latitudes, water swirling in the opposite direction… it’s a whole new world down here! We felt like silly tourists when we stopped at the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world), a landmark with a monument at the equator, but of course we had to take some pictures of this historical moment of our lives.
Already loving Ecuador, we are excited to explore another amazing country! What lies ahead could be anything: beaches, volcanoes, and maybe even the Galapagos Islands…