Posts tagged ‘South America’

Scenes from San Agustín and Tierradentro

I had no intention of visiting San Agustín and Tierradentro. But after perusing the information wall at the excellent Hosteltrail.com hostel, the Colombian Heritage Circuit struck me as the perfect four-day getaway to an interesting and not-very-visited part of the country.

This is an area that only recently opened to tourists. Long the domain of leftist People’s Army, a.k.a. FARC guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the Colombian army has succeeded in pushing anti-government forces out. While I felt safe in my travels so far in Colombia, my current guidebook (published only months prior) still had intriguing warnings on specific routes:

You should not travel after dark, not because of guerrilla activity but rather due to late-night bandits…

I asked several locals in Popayán and no one seemed to think the area or the journey were all that risky. So off I went, during daylight hours of course.

San Agustín and Tierradentro are the sole UNESCO World Heritage architectural sites in Colombia, important reminders of the ancient culture of southern Colombia that dates from 4000 BC when settlers established agricultural communities and thriving trade connections.

Unfortunately little is known about this civilization. But hundreds of unearthed statues remain, beautifully sculpted from volcanic rock, represent humans, sacred animals and even fantastical monsters. Today these are viewed atop panoramic altos (hilltop burial grounds) overlooking emerald forests.

I arrived safely to San Agustín town after an uneventful (yet bumpy) bus ride through the sparsely populated Andean hills. I did see armed Colombian soldiers patrolling the roads but the only apparent threat were the hairpin turns on unpaved roads that teetered above steep chasms.

Continue reading ‘Unearthing Colombia’s Ancients in San Agustín and Tierradentro’ »

The intricate railwork on the windows and doors of Cali's San Antonio neighborhood

After a couple weeks in sleepy, southwestern Colombia – a tourist hinterland – Cali was a refreshing change. A large city of three million, Cali’s strong Afro-Colombian culture makes it one of the friendliest. I was greeted warmly by locals with a hearty Bienvenidos, de dónde viene? (“Welcome, where are you from?”).

In a country rich in rhythms, salsa reigns supreme in Cali. It blasts from buses, apartment windows, bars and restaurants, even in public plazas. And Cali’s energetic vibe is boosted by the strong coffee that flows freely in cafés on seemingly every street corner.

My stay in Cali was brief but I got a good taste of the city: its chaotic markets, the flavorful foods, the surprising large expatriate community, even the night life. With my mates from the hostal I took a salsa dancing lesson and enjoyed cold Club Colombia beers at a bar blasting cumbia tunes.

I stayed in the charismatic colonial neighborhood of San Antonio, just a few blocks south of the main city center, which is a bohemian cluster of residences, hip cafés and galleries. I enjoyed the tranquility of this urban barrio with its picturesque streets and ornate doorways and window, but I left the city wanting to see more…

My next visit to Cali will hopefully coincide with the renowned World Salsa Festival… ¡a baila’, a goza’!

Scenes from the Zona Cafetera in Colombia

Here in Colombia’s coffee heartland, I’ve been ingesting a lot of caffeine. And consequently considering things.

Today I’ve been on the road exactly five months. And I have to admit I’ve hit one of those moments. I’ll call it what it is: a travel low.

Independent travel is what I love and what I crave. But it can be hard work, occasionally I get tired and the luster fades. It’s bound to happen – endlessly overnighting in unfamiliar towns, countless buses and constantly eating out, routine conversations with strangers, forever packing, planning and figuring shit out. It all takes a toll.

I’ve never traveled this long or far in one trip. Long-term travelers I’ve met have told me that breaks are essential in enduring lengthy spells on the road. Stopping can be as important as moving. I’m ready to sit in once place for a bit.

Maybe I feel this way because this travel chapter is winding down. Knowing that I have a couple more weeks in South America hastens the process of boxing things up and turning things off. Paul and Mark and Amy arrive in two days – I am thrilled to close out this journey with loved ones but also caught in this hollow of waiting.

So these driftless past weeks have been hard for me. I feel I’m at my best when I have specific objectives, like the Kiva fellowship, working on a technology project or learning something (like Portuguese) in a structured way.

Yet simply traveling around with a backpack is, and always will be, an important goal of mine. But now after extended periods in South America and Southeast Asia – nine months of transient world travel – I’m ready for something with a different purpose: a new vocational direction, more volunteering, deeper engagement with people, some rooting in a community.

It’s not that I don’t have any plans. There’s much I want to accomplish professionally and personally. Paul and I have lots of exciting ideas and are working on them. But nothing yet is concrete. Things remain uncertain, unclear. This business of changing one’s path is a deliberate process. It takes time. And patience has never been one of my strengths.

Soon I will say goodbye once again to South America and it will not be easy. These past months have been gratifying beyond words and my love for this continent and people grows deeper with each visit. And I look forward to my journey northwards; I want to greet family and friends, taste foods that I miss, start new projects, enjoy the ease and familiarity of home turf for a while.

That’s it, my low point: a threshold. My apprehensive transition between here and there. I know things will sort themselves out in time. Today’s trough will be a peak tomorrow.

So enough of these ruminations about past and future!

Here’s where I am right now:

I sit on the colorful wooden balcony of my charming hostal overlooking the main plaza of Filandia. It’s an overcast Sunday, the town is abuzz with locals enjoying this day of rest, this Sabbath. The busy work of yesterday and tomorrow weighs on no one.

Sunday – a threshold too – is a time to pause, sit and chat, sip steaming cups of coffee to lilting ranchera music…

Sunday scenes from Filandia, Colombia

There was so much we loved during our weeks in Ecuador but here are the standout “Number Ones” from each of us:

Paul’s #1 Thrill:

Paul’s #1 Thrill: Riding the “milk truck”

Riding the “milk truck” on a journey that seemed to climb its way to the apex of a very remote and stunning area of the Andes. We enjoyed the open air with the camaraderie of the locals who, like us, were taking the only ride out of town that day. The only thing missing was a thermos of nice hot coffee because we did have the luxury of an endless supply of fresh creamer right at our fingertips.

Peter’s #1 Natural Wonder:

Peter’s #1 Natural Wonder: The captivating Quilotoa Crater Lake

The captivating Quilotoa Crater Lake was a supremely blissful start of our 3-day trek through the remote Andean highlands. Every step of our walk was beautiful but the splendor of Volcán Quilotoa’s turquoise water was the most dazzling of all.

Paul’s #1 People:

Paul’s #1 People: The group of young Ecuadorian hikers we met

The group of young Ecuadorian hikers we met at the waterfall near Baños. If they are an example of the young and upcoming generation in Ecuador I have great hope for that country. I was thoroughly impressed with their enthusiasm, curiosity and manners not to mention they were just plain fun.

Peter’s #1 Animal:

Peter’s #1 Animal: Felipe the Cat

We encountered countless friendly critters in Ecuador, but none endeared our hearts like Felipe in at our hostal in Chugchilán. This lovely little cat spent every moment with us: purring on our laps, rambunctiously playing with peacock feathers, knocking over beer bottles, sneaking in the dining room to sniff our food, and generally being an entertaining nuisance. Oddly the owner said Felipe was in “mourning” over the recent death of his sister, but to us Felipe was always in the highest of spirits – he certainly lifted ours.

Continue reading ‘Peter and Paul’s Numero Unos of Ecuador’ »

Scenes from Quito's Old Town, a colonial gem of a city

Quito’s Old City, a wondrous maze of colonial architecture, is the largest and best-preserved in the Americas. Having endured a massive upgrade in recent years – with historic buildings restored and dicey barrios revitalized – the Old Town now boasts an impressive list of notable wonders: nearly 60 colonial churches and plazas, a bevy of Independence-era buildings, dozens of private homes, and a long list of outstanding museums.

Wandering the Old Town is a treat for the eyes and I was entertained for days. I’m not normally a huge fan of Latin American capital cities but the lure of Quito’s centro histórico is hard to resist!

Fishermen head out to sea each morning in Canoa

There’s not a lot to report from the Pacific Coast of Ecuador – we spent an uneventful week relaxing with our feet plunked in the sand, swinging in a hammock under palm trees, drinking cold beers and eating fresh catch seafood with piles of rice and fried plantains.

After months of being at altitude high in the dry Andes of Bolivia and Peru, I was craving water. Specifically the ocean. My home for the past decade has been coastal Maine and the sea has become a constant in my life. I was drained from my service as a Kiva Fellow crisscrossing Bolivia and Paul was ready for a break from the airlines.

It was time for some beach R&R.

Palm trees and Pacific sunsets... very little to complain about in Canoa!

Canoa was recommended to us by several travelers – it’s small enough to duck the surf-and-party scene yet large enough to offer good backpacker accommodation and an assortment of mom-and-pop restaurants. And with surfable waves and undeveloped beaches that stretch for miles, Canoa was our pick and we quickly settled into our comfy beachfront bungalow at the Hostal Baloo.

The beach and our porch were our only commitments in Canoa

Continue reading ‘Beach Bums: A Week in Coastal Canoa’ »

Paul and Peter above Quilotoa Crater Lake

Flipping through the pages of Lonely Planet Ecuador we found a short segment on the Quilotoa Loop, a walking circuit in the central Andean highlands. Eager to leave the tourist-heavy main corridor of the Panamericana highway, this was right up our alley. Offering energetic walks through attractive valleys and nights in isolated Kichwa-speaking villages, this outdoor Ecuadorian excursion reminded us of our gratifying rambles in the UK and Ireland.

So we dumped our heavy stuff in storage at our friendly hostal in Latacunga and set off with light backpacks on a bus bound to Zumbahua. There we found a large crowd awaiting the appearance of Rafael Correa, the socialist president campaigning for his third term.

He’s wildly popular among Ecuador’s indigenous voters: he learned Kichwa (the dominant local language) and has systematically backed strong social programs and public works since he took office in 2007. Fortunately there are sufficient funds to implement these changes since the new constitution guarantees that 85% of proceeds from Ecuadorian resources stay in the country (rather than 15% previously) – much to the chagrin of large multinational companies.

Correa is part of a growing group of popular and pragmatic leftist leaders taking root in Latin America in the last decade, known as the Pink Tide, which rejects the “Washington consensus” policies of unchecked open markets and rampant privatization. Widely expected to win by a landslide, Correa is already the longest-serving Ecuadorian president in more than a century. The current political and economic stability offers enormous hope and optimism for a large part of previously disenfranchised Ecuadorians.

Chuggin' along to Chugchilán

Chuggin’ along to Chugchilán

Our first stop was in Quilotoa, a settlement on the rim of Volcán Quilotoa with its stunning turquoise crater lake. We spent the night with other walkers from Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil, sharing a hearty family-style meal. We love these kinds of hostales where meeting fellow travelers is easy and conversations flow breezily. It was chilly on the rim at nearly 4000 m (13,000 ft) but the camaraderie warmed our hearts.

Continue reading ‘Ecuadorian Excursion: The Quilotoa Loop’ »

Nariz del Diablo, Alausí, Ecuador

The Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) train ride in Alausí, Ecuador is unlike most others.

Part of the crucial railway running from coastal Guayaquil to capital city Quito high in the Andes, this hair-raising stretch near Alausí zig-zags up an incredibly steep stretch of mountain – so sheer that a series of rocking switchbacks guide the train up nearly 600 meters (2000 feet) in just a few miles of track.

An engineering marvel when it was completed over 100 years ago, the Nariz del Diablo track still makes for one dizzying ride today. And thanks to the rebuilding efforts of current Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, the entire railway line from the Pacific coast to the Andean highlands is set to reopen in a couple of months after decades of interrupted service.

The many joys of Baños, Ecuador

What fun we had in Baños! I was somehow expecting this given that pretty much everyone we met had told us so. “It’s touristy,” they all warned us, “but you’ll barely notice it once you start doing stuff.”

Normally when my expectations are high about a place I tend to be underwhelmed when I get there. But in the case of Baños, I can honestly say it was more pleasing than I anticipated.

Baños is touristy. So much so that there are literally hundreds of hotels and restaurants in the relatively small town of 10,000 residents. But this also means that competition among businesses is intense so the quality is high and the prices very favorable to the tourist.

Our hotel, for example, Hostel La Chimenea was a delight: sparkling clean and spacious rooms with private bathrooms and balconies, a pool and sauna, wireless internet, a rooftop terrace with views of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls, a great breakfast restaurant, and friendly laid-back management. All this for a mere $8.50 a person!

Baños' distinctive church made from black volcanic stone ~ The tidy main plaza ~ Baños is "green" in more ways than one ~ A passing funeral procession

Baños’ distinctive church made from black volcanic stone ~ The tidy main plaza ~ Baños is “green” in more ways than one ~ A passing funeral procession

The real charm of Baños is not the town but the surrounding area. There are miles of excellent hiking trails with views of the active Tungurahua volcano which towers above the valley at 5,023 m (16,480 ft). There is mountain biking past scores of waterfalls, mostly down hill with frequent buses to whisk you (and your wheels) back effortlessly to Baños. You can whitewater raft, bungee jump, zipline, rappel down waterfalls and rent ATV’s. And since the mountains descend rapidly to the eastern Amazon, you can even tour tropical indigenous areas and spot jungle wildlife.

After all this adventuring, you can relax in the numerous hot mineral springs in Baños (known officially as Baños de Agua Santa or “The Baths of Sacred Water”). Our favorite were the baths just two blocks from our hotel which sit beneath a striking 100 m waterfall. We went every day, sometimes during the mornings when we encountered quiet older Ecuadorians, and a couple times during the evening when it is packed with locals and travelers – the happening social scene in town.

Clearly there is much to love about Baños. Here are some of the many things we enjoyed during our visit:

Fantastic Food

Pizza and boxed wine in our hotel room... sometimes you just want to eat in! ~ Peter protecting the sugar cane juice lady ~ Our favorite breakfast: a pancake pile with fresh fruit ~ Sharing a HUGE portion of shrimp and rice at a local eatery

Pizza and boxed wine in our hotel room… sometimes you just want to eat in! ~ Peter protecting the sugar cane juice lady ~ Our favorite breakfast: a pancake pile with fresh fruit ~ Sharing a HUGE portion of shrimp and rice at a local eatery

Continue reading ‘Baños: Getting Wet and Wild in Ecuador’s Outdoor Paradise’ »

Rough mountains near the epicenter on the approach to Pasto

As the Blizzard of 2013 bore down with full fury on New England, my world in Colombia was rocked as well. Just as I was stepping from the shower I suddenly felt a very strange vertigo and my feet became unsteady. Within moments I realized it wasn’t something physiological but rather seismological — an earthquake was underway! I quickly grabbed my clothes and headed for the stairs as hanging lamps swayed above me and books fell from shelves in the lobby.

It was over in 40 seconds. Everyone in the hotel was atwitter, the receptionist was on the phone calling family, she said this was highly unusual. I headed out to the colonial streets of Popayán and found people standing around, wide-eyed and waiting. We didn’t feel any significant aftershocks. Soon people got back to business and the city returned to normal.

I later learned that the temblor was no small incident, registering a whopping magnitude 7.0. The epicenter was just outside the town of Pasto, a pleasant provincial capital city where I spent the night two days prior. Fortunately there were no major injuries or damage but the quake was felt in the capital Bogotá 500 miles to the north and through much of Ecuador to the south.

Apparently this wasn’t my first earthquake as my home in Maine is subject to several small ones each year but are rarely felt. But this one — golly gee! — it literally almost knocked me to my knees. How astonishing to feel the colossal force of rupturing earth as it shakes, rattles and rolls over hundreds of miles.

It was my first real earthquake. I’m just thankful that there isn’t any shoveling as a result — snow or stone!

Tranquility returns to peaceful Popayán

Tranquility returns to peaceful Popayán