When our trip was still just an idea written down on my bucket list, it read ¨Spend one year in South America¨. My main motivation was to become fluent in Spanish, and I assumed that one year would do the trick. I also assumed that I would spend most of that time in one place, possibly even living and working somewhere full-time. But as the prospect of a trip to South America became a reality, Don and I realized that this was possibly our only chance to see as much of this beautiful continent as possible. The challenge became fitting as much in as we felt comfortable planning for, and the timeframe for our trip was eventually determined by how long we needed to work to save enough money and when we would need to come back to start a job as dogsledding guides in the winter. Thus…our nine months of travel commenced. Anyone who has traveled extensively on another continent than their own can tell you that every day manages to test your patience, humility, and energy levels. From bus rides to language boundaries to strict budgeting and new cultural norms – traveling is right up there with family get-togethers and new jobs in terms of the challenge to reward ratio. So Don and I had been tested and had persevered week after week and month after month, and despite the challenges, we still loved every moment of this grand adventure. But somewhere around the beginning of our 8th month, we really began to feel the burn-out, in a way that would actually inform our decisions and have us prioritizing comfort and relaxation over adventure and new experiences. We have learned more on this trip than we will probably ever be able to verbalize, but our most recent lesson has come in loud and clear – next time we travel, it will be for no more than 6 or 7 months at a time.
When we left Banos, we had a vague plan in mind for the remainder of Ecuador. We really struggled with deciding which tourists destinations to hit up, and which to skip so that we could get into Colombia. If we allowed it, Ecuador could have easily demanded the entire last month and a half of travel that we had available to us, and we felt antsy to move on. We decided that the Quilatoa Loop, the market in Otavalo, and our friends in Quito were must-sees, and we hoped to somehow also visit Volcan Cotopaxi, Mindo, and Mitad del Mundo (the equator) before crossing another border. Unfortunately, on our first day out of Banos,when we were still pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and convincing ourselves that travel was fun and we were excited for what was to come, we were robbed for our very first time. To make matters worse, we only discovered that all of our cash ($140) and my Kindle were missing once we had arrived in the small village of Zumbahua, 2 hours by bus from the nearest ATM in Latacunga. For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out when and where the theft happened, and felt uncomfortably certain that it was someone we knew in Banos before we left. But after a long-distance search (aided by mutual friends) proved fruitless we were forced to believe that some tricky thief managed to get to my daypack while we were on the bus from Banos to Latacunga. We were fortunate that my passport, credit, card, camera, etc. were still in my pack, but we somehow needed to get out more money, and we were stuck in (an incredibly beautiful) village in the middle of nowhere. To our incredible relief, our week was saved by a kind doctor from Pennsylvania who was staying in our same hotel and generously lent us his cell phone and some cash until we could get everything taken care of. In the end, besides what was stolen, we were only really set back by one full day. After an additional five hours on local Ecuadorian buses (complete with traditional “South American bus music” blasting over the speakers) we were back in our tiny village, and ready to put the whole incident behind us.
The next morning, we took a short truck ride to one of our favorite detinations of our whole trip. At a high elevation, surrounded by green mountains, is the stunning crater lake of Quilatoa. The view took our breath away, but the real treat was the 5 hour hike we took around the rim, which we had all to ourselves. Toward the end of the hike we bushwhacked down the side of the crater to the beach below, and by the time we had climbed back out, we were feeling that terrific burn that accompanies a good night’s sleep and hundreds of new photos. We were hesitant to leave the lake, but the tourists were coming in droves, and we had plans to stay in the nearby village of Chugchilan. We hopped in the back of a truck for the dustiest ride of our lives, but were unfortunately stopped short for road construction. After a bit of begging, we were allowed to carry our bags through the construction and hike the remaining few kilometers into town. The hostel we found was charming and included some tasty food, but the town had very little to offer, and we spent the evening sipping on wine by a fireplace. The town was dealing with some construction of its own which involved shutting off the water (a fact they kept to themselves when we checked in), so after Don used up the last few trickels of cold water, my shower was in the form of a huge pot of hot water that was brought to our room. It’s really the little things we take for granted. The next day was a long day of travel, which finally (4 buses and 9 hours later) brought us to the very developed and quite charming town of Otavalo.
At this point, one thing worth mentioning is our budget. This was our first long-term trip and we really had little to go on when preparing a budget. In the end, we saved as much as we possibly could (selling everything we could bare to part with and penny pinching for a year in Portland) and then divided that amount over the 9 months we planned to spend in South America. It came to somewhere between $35 and $40 a day total. We are now quite certain that that is not enough money for the type of travel we are doing. Ideally we would have $100 a day. Then we could afford to stay in hostels, eat at fun restaurants, and occasionally splurge on mountain biking, rafting, etc. But alas, our budget is what it is, and now that we are in our last month, we have no wiggle room and must abide by $40 a day no matter what it takes. This means two things primarily: we will scour a town looking for the cheapest hotel that we can find (ideally not spending more than $10 a night and using overnight buses as often as possible), and we eat a lot of street food and set meals because they´re cheap (and also happen to be filling and delicious). All this to say that when we first arrived in Otavalo we went about the usual business of finding cheap accomodations, with the end result being ¨La Casa de Korea¨, a hotel built on top of a chinese restaurant that cost us $14 each night. We weren´t complaining though…we had cable TV, a private room with private bathroom, and after a close inspection, there didn´t seem to be any bed bugs at all. The first night in town we made our way to a local pub to watch an Ecuador win their second world cup game, and then rested up for a full day of shopping at one of South America´s largest markets. We put off buying any souvenirs at all for 8 months because we didn´t want to carry everything with us, but Otavalo was the place to shop, and with less than 2 months left we decided it was time. We started out with a visit to the animal market in the morning, where we watched hundreds of people trade ¨cuy¨, or guinea pig, chickens, pigs, and even cows, much to our entertainment. From there we began our initial browse down blocks and blocks of stalls filled with everything from hammocks and blankets to paintings and clothing. The rest of the day saw us walking those same streets way too many times, looking for the best deals and the perfect gifts. It was a fun-filled day and we felt accomplished and proud of our various dealings. The following day we had an afternoon bus to Quito, where we were looking forward to meeting up with our friend Steve from Portland and his wife, but we had the morning free to explore the nearby Peguche waterfall. It was a hot, dusty walk out of town, and the park was full of tourists (though most of them were from Ecuador), but the waterfall was a welcome sight, and we felt good about getting in a bit of exercise. Another fun bus experience awaited us, but this one delivered us into the many comforts of a home and some great friends.
A week in Quito flew by before we knew what happened. We actually only spent 2 days in the city, but we still managed to fill our days and enjoy a little bit of life in Ecuador. Steve is our friend from Next Adventure in Portland and earlier this year, after marrying Sofi, he and his wife moved to Sofi´s home of Tumbaco, a suburb of Quito. It was such a relief to be picked up by Steve and driven through town to a family member´s restuarant where we watched the U.S. tie up a World Cup fútbol game. It felt even more surreal to arrive at their home later that night, be given our own room, and then sit around drinking beer and catching up in the living room. That kind of normalcy was just what we needed. We only planned to stay a couple days before exploring nearby Cotopaxi, but from the start, Steve and Sofi assured us that we were welcome as long as we pleased. They had plans to leave for the states a few days after our arrival, but continuously offered up their home, even for after they left. We got right to work exploring Quito on our first full day in town. Getting from their house into the city center was a 2 1/2 hour long adventure, but our public transportation experience came in handy, and we made it in time for a full day of city-walking, church-visiting, coffee-sipping, and park-sitting. We even finished off the night with a movie in the theatre and a dinner of Domino´s Pizza (we had promised ourselves we´d get it when and if we ever saw it in South America…and it was just as tasty as we remembered). The next day we stayed in Tumbaco, but did get out on a lovely hike (with 2 dogs for company) up to a lookout where the massive sprawl that is Quito came mostly into view. That night we were in for a very special treat. Sofi´s family was having a dinner at her mother´s house and they invited us along. The evening was filled with incredible food, bottomless drinks, full-bellied laughter, and enough family love to make the Brady Bunch jealous. We left grateful for the invite, and a little more homesick for our own families back in the states. There was still much more to see in Quito, so the next day we braved the public transit once again, this time on our way to the city´s Teleferiqo, which lifted us up a large mountain, and gave us perfect views of the huge valley that Quito occupies. We decided to rent horses for a short ride into the open fields at the top of the mountain, and then before heading back, hung out at the nearby theme park and watched high school kids ride some very janky roller coasters. That afternoon we made our decision. We slowly but surely crossed off all the remaining sights that we had hoped to visit whilst in Ecuador, settled in for a few more days of free relaxation at Steve and Sofi´s, and made plans to leave straight from Quito and into Colombia that weekend. We watched some films, watered plants, and tried to once again put aside our exhaustion and allow ourselves to get excited over our final country. It was a good thing we were rested on the mroning that we finally left, because the next day we took 9 different buses/taxis before laying down in the cheapest hotel of our entire trip, right near the bus terminal in Pasto, Colombia.
Colombia has been a whirlwind. With a trip countdown hounding us from behind, a solid 100 guidebook pages promising beautiful landscapes and must-see sights, and a strict budget that Colombian buses and hotels blow out of the water, we have put our burnt-out selves into 3rd gear and taken this country by storm. After our first day, where we entered the country, stopped by a famous church that was built in a pristine spot on a bridge over a river, and stayed the night in a hotel that cost only $7 for the two of us, the following 3 days and nights were spent in the same way: explore a town all day long, sleep on an overnight bus, find espresso and take showers in bus terminals when possible, repeat. The cities of Pasto, Cali, Medellín, and Bucaramanga were all submitted to this sort of tourism – resulting in differing amounts of enjoyment and frustration. The town of Pasto (where we found the aformentioned amazingly cheap hotel) doesn´t offer a ton in the way of tourism, but just outside of town, Laguna de la Cocha and the nearby town are an absolute delight. Our colectivo dropped us on a road at the beginning of town, right where the pavement ended and water began. Apparently, the river leading into the lake overflows its banks every year for a few months, and the town built along the river simply adapts. All the buildings are built on stilts, and all the residents own brightly covered fishing boats that they use to get around. Fortunately we were wearing our chacos, so we braved the cold water just like the locals and walked down the flooded streets, taking in the beautiful buildings that resembled something you might see in a small village in Switzerland. Eventually we hopped in a boat with some Colombian tourists (a group of 40 from outside the city of Cali were so excited to see gringos that they took at least 20 pictures with us, including ones where we held little kids or had our arms around grandparents…we were famous!) out into the lake and onto an island with a short nature walk. Needless to say, we were the only gringos in sight, and that remained the case for our entire trip through Colombia until we reached the town of San Gil, where we are now. After the boat ride we ate some fabulous grilled trout for lunch (which tasted just like smoked salmon) and then sampled some of the famous blackberry jam and whipped cream that the area is quite proud of. We made it back to Pasto in time to explore the city and its main plaza a bit before collecting our luggage from our hotel and booking our overly-expensive, overnight bus to Cali, 9 hours north.
Our day spent in Cali proved to be one of the most challenging of our trip. To begin, it was hot. Not crazy hot, but hot enough to make walking around a city with heavy packs and chacos on our feet a terribly uncomfortable experience. Also, we couldn´t seem to find anything with ease. We were quickly learning that communication was far more difficult in Colombia than anywhere else we had visited. The accent made us feel like we were back at square one with our Spanish, but even if we were fluent in the language, we are quite sure that there are other communication issue going on in this country. Even among one another, there seems to be much more confusion than normal. Interestingly, Colombia makes up for this setback by having the friendliest and happiest residents of any country we´ve visited. So even in the midst of an exhausting conversation where we are clearly saying one simple thing in Spanish and not getting anything close to an appropriate answer (i.e. ¨Ya tenemos boletos, no necesitamos comprarlos¨ was responded to multiple times with ¨Si, tengo boletos, cuestan 30,000 cada uno, ¿cuantos quieres?¨) we are still treated with patience and offered big smiles as we walk away. After finally getting into the center of town, we then had the challenge of finding a cheap hotel (at that point we had planned on staying a couple days). We eventually ended up in the ¨muy peligroso¨ part of town, and with the concerned warnings of locals echoing down the alleyways, we finally dropped our bags in the cheapest hotel we could find…a dirty hole-in-the-wall that cost $10 a night. The next couple hours were spent walking around a desolate and not particularly attractive city. We came to learn that it was in fact a holiday (the reason why everything was closed down), and that there was literally nothing for us to do in Cali unless we wanted to go out for salsa dancing that night…the town has a solid reputation for their salsa clubs. Exhaustion and frustration caught up to us by noon and in an act of desperation we walked back to our hotel, gathered up our belongings, and headed all the way back to the terminal. We decided to buy tickets on an overnight bus to Medellín and try our luck there, with our ultimate goal being the coast, still over 20 hours away by bus. With the entire afternoon free, we chose to brave Cali once more. We checked our luggage into storage at the terminal and took 2 hours of public transportation out to a river with tons of swimming holes – a surefire way to beat the heat. When we arrived we finally realized where the entire population of Cali had been hiding all day. Thousands of people were BBQing, hanging out, and swimming along the banks, and we spent a great afternoon in their midst, drawing more stares and sheepish smiles than we knew what to do with. Getting back to the terminal was another perfect example of a Colombian communication breakdown (100´s of people waited hours for buses in a line that never seemed to move due to the many people cutting to the front), but we made it back in one piece and settled into one of the most overpriced, bumpiest, and uncomfortable overnight buses of the trip.
When we got into Medellín, we were in need of a restart. We took some great cold water terminal showers, drank some espresso, checked our bags in storage, and hopeful that this daywould be better, we went out to explore. We ended up having a much less eventful and far more relaxing day in the nice college-town of Medellín. We watched 2 World Cup fútbol matches, walked around a botanical garden, and utilized the town´s great metro system that made us feel like we were back on the ¨L¨ in Chicago. Though we barely spent any money all day, we still felt stressed out by the bus fares we had been paying, and that night, when we went to purchase our tickets to the coast, we were nearly brought to tears with the quoted price of 130,000 pesos each. Our guidebook had said 86,000, and we truly could not afford double that. We spent a bit of time rethinking our plans over some tasty empanadas, and eventually decided that our only option was to scratch the coast, and just head east toward the town of Bucaramanga, where there was still plenty to explore. When we were completely honest with ourselves, we had to admit that neither of us were truly looking forward to being back at the beach anyway. The heat, bugs, party-goers, and jacked-up prices had us stressed out just thinking about it, and we both felt more comfortable staying closer to some mountains and national parks. So we booked a ticket 9 hours east, and haven´t looked back.
Bucaramanga was more enjoyable than we could have expected. Considered nothing more than a stop-through town, Don and I hoped there´d be some cheap digs that we could rest in for a day or two. Unfortunately, a few hours of city walking proved almost completely futile, but we eventually settled on a cheap hotel, again in the less desireable part of town. We spent the next few days exploring the town, taking a day-trip to the cute colonial village of Girón where we ate some amazingly delectable treats, and watching the Colombia-Brazil World Cup game in a park with hundreds of crazy-obsessed fans. It was a nice break, and little things about the city, such as our fruit-stand guy who taught us about all the unique Colombian fruits, made us feel right at home. Every time we go to pack up our backpacks, it takes a little more effort. On the morning that we left for San Gil, we were especially slow. We finally caught a midday bus and traveled 5 hours south through a beautiful canyon into the very popular, very touristy, town of San Gil. We knew to expect that we would like this town, and we were right. Built right on the convergence of two rivers, and with a great climate and a thriving community, this place is the Baños of Colombia (keeping in mind that Baños was the Bariloche of Ecuador, and Bariloche was the Breckenridge of Argentina). We have been hard at work making the most of our time here in San Gil and planning out our last few weeks in this country before we have the pleasure of traveling with Don´s younger sister for a little over a week near Bogota. Before we know it, we´ll be closing the door on this amazing adventure and moving on to all the adventures to come. We may be burnt-out, but that won´t stop us from seeing and doing everything we can before leaving this incredible continent. Now we are off to watch a World Cup game and sip on some delilicious Colombian coffee!