Into the Southern Hemisphere

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Camping at Rose Cottage with Volcan Imbabura in the background

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Fruit, veggie, and food market in Otavalo

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Central square in Otavalo

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

Categories: Colombia, Ecuador | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Beautiful Colombia

After thirty hours rocking at sea, we awoke to the sunrise in Cartagena. We disembarked and hopped in a cab that took us to Hotel Villa Colonial where we stayed during our five days in Cartagena. Located in the travel friendly Getsemani neighborhood in walking distance to the sights, it was a wonderful place to stay at nearly half the price of the other hotels and even hostels around but was just as nice.

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The view from our balcony

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The terrace

After a little rest and recovery, we wandered around the old city and marveled at the beautiful old buildings along the cobblestone streets, each a different, sunny color with wooden balconies spilling over with bright bougainvilleas. Colombia immediately felt different from Central America somehow. I cant really put my finger on it, but the colors, the heat, the music, the people, the whole vibe was new to us and we loved it.

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The next day began the arduous process of getting the van out of the port. Luckily, our shipping partners, Johnny and Patricia, were staying in a hostel just around the corner from us. Aron and Johnny spent three entire days running around to various offices at the two shipping yards, paying fees, getting papers signed and stamped, and trying to navigate through the extremely convoluted process. In the meantime, Patty and I strolled around Cartagena and dreamed as we browsed jewelry shops featuring Colombia’s famous emeralds.

When Aron and Johnny finally succeeded in getting the cars out of the port, we celebreated by enjoying our last day in Cartagena together. We walked around and sampled all the streetfood we could find: fresh squeezed orange and mandarine juice, various ceviches, a soft fried bread stick sort of like a donut with cheese in the middle, and Colombias’s famous arepas- a fried corn patty filled with egg, meat, or cheese.

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Once our appetites were fulfilled, we visited the Castillo San Filipe, a huge stone fortress lined with canons overlooking Cartagena. Along with an immense stone wall surrounding the entire old city, the fortress was built to fend off pirates and to store gold. We heard that gold was found stashed in some of the historic buildings of the city during their recent renovations.

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Strolling one last time through the old city, we enjoyed the warm breeze and the beautifully lit up night.

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We parted ways with our new friends as they headed to big city life in Medellin while we headed southeast to do some camping and enjoy the outdoors in the Andes mountains of Colombia.

Colombia is enormous compared to the countries we traveled through in Central America. We set out feeling a little lost but headed in the direction of San Gil, a town known as a base for outdoor adventure sports like kayaking, paragliding, and mountain biking. While it looked like a short distance on the map, it took us an entire two days of driving to make it there.

In the middle of our second day of driving, the scenery changed from flat, green farmland to magnificent mountains. We drove through the stunning Chicamocha Canyon and winded up the sides of the mountain while enjoying spectacular views.

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San Gil turned out to be a good choice and is a small town nestled in the mountains surrounded by a plethora of outdoor opportunities. Of all the options, we decided to check out Cascadas Juan Curi, a series of beautiful waterfalls that more adventurous folks rappel down. We camped at a finca (farm) along a creek fed by the waterfalls. The farm was run by a sweet little elderly señora who invited us in for agua de panela, a Colombian specialty which is sort of like hot sugar water with cinnamon. Panela is a natural sugar that is everywhere and in everything in Colombia.

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In the evening we hiked twenty minutes up the lush canyon until we reached the first waterfall. A series of ladders and climbing ropes led to more waterfalls up the way. The scenery and the waterfalls themselves were absolutely stunning and miraculously we had them all to ourselves.

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The next day after some van maintenance we packed up to visit the quaint little colonial village of Barichara, a place preserved 300 years in time. Rows of white buildings with terra cotta roofs lined the little cobblestone streets of the sleepy village surrounded by rolling hills. The area kind of reminded us of a small, old version of Santa Barbara in California.

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Church in Barichara

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From Barichara we walked to the nearby even smaller colonial village of Guane via the Camino Real, a famous old stone path that passed by farms and goat herders.

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El Camino Real

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Hanging moss tree hair along the Camino Real

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Church in the central plaza of Guane

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Our next stop deeper in the mountains and at a higher elevation was Villa de Leyva, another beautiful old colonial village. With similar architecture and style as Barichara but larger and more populated, Villa de Leyva was a wonderful place to be for a few days. There are so many outdoor activities to do in the area one could easily spend two weeks here.

We camped at Hostal Renacer, a beautiful spot just outside of town with lovely views and a huge fire pit which we sat around each evening with fellow travelers drinking beer, sharing stories, and making pizzas.

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Here we slowed down a bit and spent a lot of time relaxing and cooking at the hostal. I had a bit of a cold with a relentless cough so we took it easy and did a little hike at Paso de Angel (Angel’s Pass), a walk along a narrow mountain ridge with beautiful views of the valleys below.

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We spent a morning wandering through the cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva and visited the Saturday market. It was hard not to buy everything, the rows of stands with fresh, colorful produce were magnetizing: sweet mountain blackberries, freshly shelled beans, baby papayas, and all kinds of other local fruits and veggies.


The main square in Villa de Leyva, supposedly the largest in South America.

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Saturday market

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Enjoying corn, arepas, and coffee at the market

After a few mellow days, we headed three hours east to Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake. Along the way we passed by a variety of little mountain villages, each with a beautiful church peeking out over the buildings.

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At 10,000 feet elevation, Lago de Tota was icy cold and was surrounded by small farms growing onions, potatoes, and other crops, creating a pretty patchwork of greens and purples all around the shore. Fuzzy sheep and cows grazed on the hillsides and all the locals wore warm woolen ponchos to keep out the chilly mountain air. I really think this was one of the most beautiful, scenic places we have visited on our trip.

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We camped under the full moon at Playa Blanca, a white sand beach on the shores of the lake. Although the setting was gorgeous, we were driven away by the icy wind that blew across the lake in the morning.

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Near the lake, we visited Mongui, another beautiful, quaint, colonial town. The mountain setting and the locals walking around in traditional woolen ponchos and sombreros added to the tranquil beauty. We strolled around and shared a local specialty of fresh trout in mandarin sauce at a cozy little restaurant.

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So far, Colombia has been one amazingly beautiful place after another. So much so that we are getting accustomed to waking up in new, breathtaking places. Not to mention, the Colombians we have met are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and most enthusiastic people of our entire trip. They love their beautiful country and are proud to share it with travelers.

Only halfway through the country, next we cross the Andes mountains to visit the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee zone.

Categories: Colombia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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