Ecuador

Ecuador

From southern Colombia through the center of Ecuador, we rode the Andes mountain range which provided continuous and spectacular scenery on a grand scale.

pastasas river from cable car

At Ipiales, Colombia we took a colectivo to the border of Ecuador and strolled across the frontier right into the quiet and unassuming Ecuadorian migration office. That was probably the easiest and fastest border crossing process we’d experienced throughout the entire journey. After zipping through immigration, we crossed the street and grabbed another colectivo to the town of Tulcan. It seemed to drop us on the street in the middle of a small, nothing-burger town and when I asked the driver how to get to the bus station, all I could understand was to just get on any bus that runs along the street. Instead, I hailed a taxi and we continued along another 1/2 mile or so right to the terminal.

Following our guidebook’s suggestions, I asked for a direct bus with no stops to Quito. I came to find out ‘direct’ means the bus doesn’t go out of its way, and though the window clerk said there would be no stops, there were in fact dozens of stops along to pick up/drop off other passengers, as well as for vendors just like those we experienced in Colombia. The difference being the addition of one or two whose sales pitch were about some health (read: snake-oil-type) product.

Funky trumpet-playing duet entertaining us on a bus

Funky trumpet-playing duet entertaining us on a bus

Safe travels are always a concern. We read numerous warnings about the dangers of traveling through Ecuador, especially on the buses which were notorious for pickpockets and sneak-thieves. Our first destination, Quito, sounded especially dangerous. We already heard a couple of first-hand instances of people being robbed at knife point in Colombia (though, each of the victims admitted they went against their better judgement and were not being careful). So, for the entire 5-hour ride to Quito, we kept our day-packs on our laps the whole way.

We were very busy in the first two days of Quito which were spent looking for last-minute deals for a cruise through the Galapagos Islands. It wasn’t an easy task. It’s an expensive place to visit and according to several travel agents, this year seemed especially busy with people trying to do the same thing as us. It’s always less expensive booking trips from as close to the venue as possible. The alternative was to go directly to the Galapagos. However, it could also mean waiting days for availability on an appropriate cruise. We decided to try to maximize our time touring Quito and Ecuador once we had booked our tour.

Afterwards, we were better able to enjoy touring Quito which sits in a picturesque valley in the Andes.

The Teleferiqo

The TeleferiQo gondola lift goes up Mt. Pichincha volcano and is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world

The Basilica Voto Nacional took over 100 years to build. Instead of gargoyles, it is adorned with iguanas, armadillos, and Galapagos turtles.

"Gargoyles"

“Gargoyles”

Quito is not only the capital of Ecuador, but it is also the religious and politically conservative center. It has some of the largest and most elaborate churches and cathedrals in South America.

The incredibly ornate Church of the Company of Jesus

The incredibly ornate Church of the Company of Jesus

The Casa Alabado is a museum dedicated to the documentation and displaying artifacts of pre-Colombian history.

These effigies of ancestors were originally buried up to their waists symbolizing their emergence from the underworld.

Pre-Colombian effigies of ancestors dating 500-1500 B.C.E.

Pre-Colombian effigies of ancestors dating 500-1500 B.C.E.

We visited two other museums as well. The Museum of the City was about the origins of the city of Quito from 10,000 BCE to today, and the Ethnohistorical Museum which held many artisanal products linked to the Indigenous, Mestizo, and Afro-Ecuadorian values.

mindalae indian face

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The Atlantic coast — Santa Marta and Cartagena — to the border of Ecuador

The Atlantic coast — Santa Marta and Cartagena — to the border of Ecuador

We landed in Santa Marta on the Atlantic coast on May 3rd, exactly one year from the day we’d landed in Cairo at the start of our journey.

santa marta market

Santa Marta was the first Spanish settlement in the Americas and dates back to 1525. The dominant cultural influence is ‘Caribbean’ since the people who live there are the descendants of the mixture of indigenous people, European colonials, and slaves. It was clear from listening to the taxi driver on the ride from the airport that people speak differently here. It reminded me of the Spanish I heard growing up in NY by the many Puerto Rican residents. The speech is fast and furious and I’m told that it’s not enunciated as well as in many other Spanish-speaking regions–Caribbean-flavored, as it were. For example, they may say “bu” leaving off the “s” when saying “bus”. The accent is different, too. Just as I was getting used to pronouncing my “ll’s” as a “j” sound, I had to re-adjust pronouncing them as a “y” again! Folks from Medellin told me they have difficulty understanding the people on the coast. Still, I’m sure glad I took those several weeks of Spanish classes as they’ve come in quite useful.

The first cathedral built in the Americas

The first cathedral built in the Americas

I went to neighboring Taganga to check out the town, the beach and opportunities to do scuba diving. An old fishing village turned backpacker town, the main street runs along a beautiful beach which stretches a few hundred yards.

taganga beach

Except for the main street, Taganga appears quite run down. Some of the narrow and ruddy unpaved side streets made me think of scenes from spaghetti westerns.

santa marta street

The lonely looking little church in the old town square clinched it for me.

church in santa marta

We did a very strenuous hike through the hot steamy jungle of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Tayrona National Park. All of my clothes were quickly soaked in sweat. As planned, we stopped at pre-Hispanic ruins called “Pueblito”. At one time, this area had supported a community of about 1400 inhabitants.

Pueblito huts

Pueblito huts

Pueblito is a smaller version of another part of the park called The Lost City which involves a 4-5 day round-trip jungle trek. It took a bit over 2 hours to get to Pueblito. The round huts were constructed on large circular stone terraces built into the hillsides and the city is connected by paths of large sandstone boulders.

Cindy on a sandstone boulder-bridge

Cindy on a sandstone boulder-bridge

The trail from Pueblito to the sea is paved by boulders and surrounded by massive ones. Descending to the sea was not easy as we had to slide, hop or jump from boulder to boulder.

The numerous beaches that sat at the base of the Sierra Nevada were stunningly beautiful.

Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National Park

Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National Park

The return hike was relatively flat as it followed the shoreline, however, Cindy’s knees took a beating on the mountains so after a few kilometers we took advantage to rest when we came across some locals with horses for rent. It was a ‘bail-out’ option one usually doesn’t encounter.

bill and cindy on horses

Cartagena

The Cathedral of Cartagena

The Cathedral of Cartagena

Sometimes it’s amazing what you get when arranging b&b accommodations. We booked 4 nights (private room with bath) right on the beach and a 15 minute walk to the old city. We met a few other guests upon arrival and since the owner had a couple of other properties he rents out, he decided to put us in one of them. It meant doubling the walking time to the old city but it turned out to be a major upgrade. We landed in a 5-bedroom apartment all to ourselves on the 34th floor of a high-rise apartment right on the beach.

cartagena apt

I’d read that Cartagena had numerous touts but was surprised as to the extent. They were everywhere we went, selling hats, jewelry, purses, drinks, food, watches…even little ‘animals’ made from palm leaves. It was unusual to find them persistent in their approach but the volume was intrusive. It was a constant reminder that we are still tourists and I pined a bit for the every day local living of Medellin.

The touts were at it again. Oh wait, that was a guide with a tourist in Museum of the Inquisition.

The touts were at it again. Oh wait, that was a guide with a tourist in the Museum of the Inquisition.

Sitting in an outdoor restaurant in the old city did not provide relief as the owners saw no need or interest in shooing them away. I took this to be a social contract of sorts. We’d seen a variation of this on almost every local bus ride we’d taken, Medellin included. Someone, usually a vendor of candy, gum, pens, or snacks, would come on to the bus and go into a sales pitch. During the pitch, they would hand out a piece of whatever they were selling to anyone who’d accept the item. Most people would take and hold whatever was being sold. By the end of their sales pitch they would go back through the bus to either re-collect the item or take money for the sale. Bus drivers never turned anyone away and I think I’d seen one or two being tipped by the vendors. There were also singers (acapella or with amplified, pre-recorded accompaniment), guitarists, and rappers who would board the bus for a song or two and then leave with anything anyone would give them.

Although Santa Marta was the first established settlement, Cartagena soon dominated as a full-blown colonial city due to its protected harbor. We visited two areas, the old city and the neighborhood where we stayed called Bocagrande. The old city was beautiful; a wonderfully preserved colonial town with outstanding 16th and 17th century fortifications.

Colonial architecture of Cartagena

Colonial architecture of Cartagena

One of the most impressive and well-preserved fortifications sits on a hill just outside the confines of the old city called Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The guns command a view of the whole area and bay, and the fortress contains a complex maze of underground tunnels.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Of course, we also took advantage of the fine white sand beaches and warm tropical waters.

Bocagrande, Cartagena

Bocagrande, Cartagena

We flew south to our last stop in Colombia only a few kilometers from the border with Ecuador. There is a huge basilica church called Las Lajas which rises 330 feet from the bottom of a spectacular gorge and is connected to the other side of the canyon by a bridge.

Las Lajas Sanctuary

Las Lajas Sanctuary

Trips out of Medellin

Trips out of Medellin

While in Medellin, we focused on touring the city and going to school but we did take some time to see some sights out of town. We went to Santa Fe de Antioquia, also known as The Mother City. It was founded in 1541 and was the regional capital until the government moved to Medellin in 1826.

Colonial architecture in Santa Fe de Antioquia

Colonial architecture

The historic Bridge of the West is a National Monument which spans the Cauca River.

The Bridge of the West

The Bridge of the West in Santa Fe de Antioquia

Below is a photo of a photo taken during a Catholic religious ceremony in Santa Fe. I wasn’t able to find out the significance of the hoods (perhaps they are supposed to represent angels) but it highlights the differences in cultural meanings.

sisters with hoods

We had wanted to go to a beautiful area called Zona Cafetera (the main coffee growing region) since we first heard about it. It was close to Medellin, but not close enough for a day trip. Knowing this would probably be our last chance, we woke up on the Monday of our last week in Medellin and decided to play hooky from school (there was a holiday during that week anyway). That was at about 8:00am. We ate breakfast, packed some things and were out the door minutes later. We grabbed a taxi that had just dropped someone off and headed for the south bus terminal. Once there, the search was on to find the window of the transportation company that sold tickets to Pereira. It took a few minutes until we found the right one among the dozens that were lined up one after another. When I asked what time the colectivo (a shared taxi/minibus) would leave, the woman at the counter told me 9:30. As I looked up at the clock it was indeed 9:30! We paid for the tickets, went right out to the gate and at 9:37 we were on a colectivo heading for Pereira, one of the major cities in Zona Cafetera. It was a 5 hour ride including a stop for lunch, and once there, we had to find another colectivo to our destination, Salento. I quickly found the right transportation company and while waiting for our next colectivo, I called a hostel and made a reservation for the next few nights. We boarded another colectivo and in less than 1 hour we had arrived in Salento.

We stayed in the Plantation House Hostel owned by an Australian ex-pat who also owned a local coffee farm. His name was “Tim” but that didn’t sound too Colombian so he changed it to “Don Eduardo”. The tour was excellent, covering the coffee growing and processing business from A to Z. After the tour we got to sample a couple of different kinds of coffee.

Coffee in every form from right off the tree to ready to brew

Coffee in every form from right off the tree to ready to brew

The next day we did a 5-hour hike to The Acaime Nature Reserve in the Cauca Valley. To get there, we went to the center of town where there is a cadre of old Willys jeeps that shuttle people to the village of Cocora.

cadre of willys

Amazingly, they each carry 13 people...including 5 that stand on the rear bumper

Amazingly, they each carry 13 people…including 5 that stand on the rear bumper

The first part of the trail goes through farmland and is lined by a barbed wire fence. After about 20-25 minutes, there was a most unusual obstacle blocking the trail. A farmer stood guard over one of the biggest bulls I’d ever seen and it was smack dab in the middle of the trail. There was no negotiating this situation. The farmer recommended everyone go around the bull by going over/under/through the barbed wire enclosure. So we all did.

dodging barbed wire

Hummingbirds at Acaime Reserve

Hummingbirds at Acaime Reserve

Wax Palm trees are the national tree of Colombia

Wax Palms are the national tree of Colombia

That night I went to a local bar/restaurant to play one of the national games of Colombia called Tejo. Tejo involves throwing 2-kg metal discs into a pit containing gunpowder-filled paper charges with the objective of hitting them so they explode. I played with a couple from the hike and some others they had met in their travels. Drinking beer and shouting are obligatory. It was great fun!

Guatapé

Guatapé

On one weekend excursion out of Medellin, we stopped at La Piedra (The Rock) Del Peñol on the way to the town of Guatape. La Piedra is a unique geologic formation with a rock face that is over 200 meters high.

La piedre del Peñol

La piedre del Peñol

Climbing to the platformed summit involves ascending 740 steps built into one of the rock’s breaks. The town of Guatape was originally built in 1811. A virtual ghost town at one time, it metamorphosed into a tourist town a few years ago. Most of the tourists appeared to be weekend-tripping Colombians.

View from La piedre (The Rock)

View from La piedre (The Rock)

The summit provides a sweet 360 degree view of lakes and hills which were dramatically altered when much of the area was covered by water due to construction of a hydroelectric dam in the 60’s.

bill and cindy summit guatape

We took a short cab ride to the charming town of Guatape where we strolled the narrow cobblestone streets whose houses were lined with colorful frescos.

fresco I

street in guatape

We dined on local paisa dishes and took a canoe out for a ride on the lake.

On the lake; la piedre in the background

On the lake; La Piedre in the background