It is nearly impossible for me to believe that our time in South America is coming to a close. For months, the date August 4th has seemed hypothetical. This was the day when Don would fly back to California, I would spend a day alone in Bogota, and then I would fly to Rome, Italy the following afternoon. Our trip, which has felt like a lifetime of experiences, memories, friendships, and discoveries, would end just how it began, with organization, details, airports, and upcoming plans. We thought we´d be more than ready for this day – after all, we are quite tired of living out of backpacks and moving every couple nights – but we couldn´t have predicted how hard it would be to actually leave this continent. To put it simply, we´ve fallen in love. We love the people, the food, the language, the culture, and the land of South America. And to make matters more difficult, Don and I are parting ways for an entire month, after a solid 2 1/2 years together. We know we will enjoy this time, Don gets to see family and friends in the Portland area and I get some special mother-daughter time in Europe, but there´s no denying that saying goodbye was hard. There is a tornado of feelings going on in my heart (who knew you could feel so much excitement and heartache at the same time?), but in the midst of it all, I feel compelled to write one last South America blog about our final month in Colombia.
As Don and I awaited the arrival of his younger sister and her fiance to Bogota, we worked hard on saving money and making ourselves comfortable in a few beautiful destinations. We spent approximately one week in San Gil, another in Cocuy National Park, and a final week and a half in the gorgeous town of Villa de Leyva, and we honestly could have stayed longer in each place. I mentioned in the last post that San Gil felt like the Baños of Colombia, with its many outdoor adventures and droves of tourists, and like Baños, it didn´t take long for us to feel right at home. The cheap hotel that we found was welcoming and clean, and we filled each day with a different (inexpensive) adventure. Walking is our primary form of entertainment, and we always like to walk up to a town´s lookout (usually a cross on a hilltop) on our first day so we can get a little exercise and also see the big picture of where we are staying. San Gil also has a nice park, more like a botanical garden, where we spent an afternoon strolling through shaded pathways and along a sandy river. The highlight of the town is the Curiti River, where you can spend the day alternating between tons of perfect swimming holes, ideal sun-bathing boulders, and even a couple natural water slides. We also spent one whole day in the neighboring villa of Barichara, where we walked the (longer than expected) Camino Real trail to Guanes and watched the Germany-Brazil World Cup game that left every spectator in complete awe. We ended many of our days at our favorite Cuban sandwich shop, and by the time we decided to move on, we also had a grocery store, ice cream shop, bakery, and internet cafe that we liked to call our own.
Ever since first entering Colombia, we had gone back and forth on whether or not we would visit Cocuy National Park on the eastern edge of Colombia. When we left San Gil, the plan was to head straight for Villa de Leyva, where we would likely spend a week or so, and then move on to Bogota. We had decided we would skip Cocuy because it would take 2 long overnight buses, a lot of money, and a whole week of time to make happen, and to be honest, our tired selves were just thinking of taking the easy way out. However, when we arrived in the town of Tunja, only an hour from Villa de Leyva and the pick-up point for a 9 hour bus to Cocuy, our adventurous sides got the best of us, and we booked a bus out to the national park for that night. Adventure is exactly what we got. The week turned out far from perfect, but we were happy just to spend more time in nature and the mountains, and when all was said and done, we did manage to stay on budget.
The bus ride to the tiny town of Cocuy was not comfortable. The road was winding and full of potholes, and seated at the back of the bus we barely got any sleep at all. When we finally arrived at the town´s plaza at 4 in the morning, we laid out our sleeping bags on a stone bench and slept for 3 more hours. Our first full day in the tiny poncho-wearing town saw us running errands: finding a hotel, buying groceries, getting our park passes, and making a plan for the following morning. The next day we woke up early to hop in the back of the area´s lechero, or milk truck, for an hour long ride up into the national park. When we left town, we had blue skies, but as we neared our destination, the skies turned grey and filled with heavy clouds. Convinced that life is trying desperately hard to teach us some sort of lesson, we started out a 2 hour hike in a light drizzle, which only worsened as the day went on. We reached the Cabaña Sisuma where we planned to camp for our first night just as the high winds and sleet eliminated any remaining visibility. Fortunately, the cabin had a nice host, a fireplace, and even internet, so we spent the rest of the day staying warm by the fire and only venturing out for a short day hike in the afternoon. The storm only got worse, but we were determined to save money and sleep outside, so once our tent was set-up in a bog-like field, we climbed in and like usual, made the best of our situation. The following 3 days saw no improvement in the weather. We stayed in our little cabin during the day, staring out the windows at the fog and rain, running outside for pictures whenever the clouds would break for a few minutes, making friends with our fellow adventurers, and even watching the World Cup final on a laptop with a slow internet connection. Our original plan had us doing some multiple-day backpacking, but on the 3rd day when we tried to get up and over a pass and on to our next camp site, we were turned around by deep snow, zero visibility, and bitterly freezing winds. That afternoon, we finally decided to head back. We dried out and packed up our gear, and just when we were getting psyched to hike 8 hours all the way back to town, a very nice Spanish couple offered us a ride in their taxi. That same night we took another overnight bus all the way back to Tunja, and when we once again arrived at 4 in the morning, we laid out our sleeping bags on the bus terminal´s ground and settled in for a few hours of ¨real¨ sleep.
Despite the beautiful surroundings and unique adventures, the journey to Cocuy had been exhausting. When we got into Villa de Leyva, we were not in the mood to walk all around town looking for cheap lodging. The plan had been to spend at least a week in the village, and we were sorely disappointed when our search for affordable lodging seemed futile and we had to begin considering a backup plan. We finally found a half-finished hotel we could afford, only after explaining our story to the landlady, and receiving a good dose of her pity. After showers and a nap, we were much more able to appreciate the beauty and charm of the town we would now call home. Villa de Leyva is a true gem. It is as colonial as you can get, and comes complete with cobblestone streets, whitewash mansions lining the streets, and its crowning jewel, South America´s largest plaza. We happened to arrive in town on a busy festival day (part of a busy festival week) and there were hundreds of Colombians walking the streets and scouring the market/carnival that had been set up in the large plaza. We treated ourselves to a tasty plate of barbequed meat that they had set-up around a huge bonfire, and then began searching for a book exchange where I might find some new reading material.
Sometimes life surprises you in the best of ways. I didn´t know when I walked into a cute cafe right in the middle of town and asked if I might organize the book exchange that it would spark a full week of friendship, good food, and wonderful accomodations. All I knew was that the two closets full of books were exactly what I was looking for, and could use some organization in order to be more user-friendly. The owner said I was free to come back the next day to organize and Don and I went on our way. The following day we stopped in the cafe, and as I got started organizing, the owner asked Don if he wouldn´t mind doing a little painting. Don agreed and a few hours, lots of white walls, many shelves of books, and some free tasty sandwiches later, we were introduced to our new friends Fernando and his wife Maria Claudia, the owners of Tortas y Tartas de la Villa coffee shop. In exchange for our work, Fernando offered for us to stay with them a few nights, and we accepted gratefully. That same day, a friend of Fernando´s approached us and asked if we would want to work the following day setting up a wedding. This was our first paid job offer on this trip and we were excited to learn a few things and make a little money. We ended up spending the next two days out on a beautiful farm preparing flower arrangements, hanging decorations from trees, and helping out the wedding planner in any way possible. It was a great experience for everyone involved, and when we left and the wedding began, it was a gorgeous sight to behold.
We had agreed to stay with Fernando and Maria Claudia because they seemed like lovely people and it was free lodging, but if we had known how beautiful their house was and how cozy and ideal our space would be, we would have begged them just to share a meal with us. Once we showed up at Fernando´s house, we were in for 5 days of perfect relaxation, food, and fun. Of course, we managed to get in a bit of work exhange too. We spent one busy day helping out at the cafe (I made coffee drinks and Don cleaned dishes) and we spent another morning painting the walls of the guesthouse where we were staying and where we could have probably stayed forever and lived happily ever after. In town, we enjoyed carnival rides, street food, a nice walk out to an old dinosaur fossil, and a very special treat, waffles with syrup at a great little Brazilian cafe where we also became addicted to a savory snack called coxinha. Back at the house, Don and Maria Caludia got into a cooking frenzy, each one preparing delicious homemade meals that reminded Fernando and I of just how lucky we both are. On our last day, Maria Claudia made us a classic Colombian dish of beef and potatoes and after lunch we all retreated to our rooms for a long afternoon nap. We could have stayed with our new friends longer, but eventually it was time to leave and visit Bogota. We wanted a couple days to explore the city and hang out with a friend we met in Bolivia before meeting up with Don´s sister and her fiance for our last week of travel in South America. We left Fernando and Maria Claudia with full hearts and many promises of our eventual return.
It felt surreal arriving in Bogota, the city where we´d be flying out of and the final destination of our trip. Fortunately, we had fun plans for our first night in town which helped set-off any anxiety we were feeling. Back in Bolivia we took a 3-day guided tour of the Uyuni Salt Flat with a group of about 8 other people, including a Colombian girl named Mariana. The whole group hit it off nicely and many of us have kept in touch. Months ago Mariana told us to get in touch when we got to Bogota, but she probably didn´t expect us to remember and take up her offer! Nevertheless, she and her boyfriend welcomed us with open arms and displayed classic Colombian hospitality. They gave us our own room to stay in, took us out to a fabulous local themed restuarant (complete with dancing, delicious food and drinks, and even performers), and shared a bit of their lives with us. All this even though they were both leaving for grad school in Chicago the very next day. It was a whirlwind visit, but definitely not our last. The following day we found a nice hostel, got to know the city´s public transportation a bit, and killed a few hours by shopping for new shoes, all before heading to the airport to pick up our honorary traveling buddies!
Before this trip to South America, Don and I took a road trip around the states to visit friends and family. While in Austin, Texas, Don´s younger sister said that she wanted to come visit us while we were down here. Of course, we took that comment and ran with it. During the early months of our trip we kept in touch and by the time we were in Bolivia, Shannon had purchased tickets to join us for 8 days in Colombia. We figured it made sense to have her join us at the end of the trip since we´d already be in Bogota near the airport, and there is plenty around here to fill up a week of travel. Then, as more months went by, Shannon started to date a wonderful man named Armando from Peru, and before we knew it, the relationship had gotten serious. After lots of discussion, we all decided that Armando should come down too, which would expose him to this style of travel, give us the opportunity to know Shannon´s now-fiance, and give the two of them the security and pleasure of being together for this experience. It turned out to be a great decision. True to form, the week was a whirlwind of activity and tourism, but our visitors held their own nicely and everyone had a great time seeing, tasting, and experiencing a great sliver of Colombia.
The plan was to spend a couple days acclimatizing to the new culture in Bogota, then spend about 4 days exploring the Zona Cafetera, which is lush coffee-growing region of the country, before returning for a few last-minute activities in Bogota. For Don and I, a huge aspect of travel is the traditional foods of each place, so from the very start, we shared all we had learned about Colombian food with Shannon and Armando, fitting extra meals into each day just so we could try all the culinary treats on offer. Our first two full days in the city included a walking tour of the historic center, a visit to the city´s famous gold museum, a teleferico/funicular ride up Cerro Monserrate, a viewing of the city from the 48th floor of the Colpatria building, a walk around an impressive Sunday flea market, a stop at the Bogota Beer Company, and of course, a dinner/dancing celebration at a fancy retaurant for Don´s birthday. Gaira is a famous restaurant in the Zona Rosa, an upper-class neighborhood, which is popular for its dinner performances and live music. There was a wedding filling the restuarant when we were there so the ambiance was a bit altered, but the performers did not disappoint and Shannon and Armando had a chance to show off their salsa moves to an eclectic mix of South American music.
In order to give our guests the true travel experience, we all headed to the Bogota bus terminal late in the evening and took an overnight bus 7 hours to the town of Manizales, where we began our coffee region travels. The bus wasn´t too bad, and Shannon and Armando were champs, staying calm and cheery even when we got in at 4 in the morning, took a taxi to our hostel, and managed to access our beds early for a few hours of much-needed catch-up sleep. We only had one day to explore all of Manizales, so we started out on foot and gave ourselves our own walking tour of much of the city. After lunch our first destination was Cinnabun (Don and I are suckers for delicious American food that we haven´t had all year) and then a ride on a 5D simulator…because why not? This was followed by a visit to the city´s unique basilica, a journey through a park with good views of the Los Nevados mountain range, and as a final touch, limonadas in a cafe that overlooked much of the city we had just explored. The following day we were picked up in a Jeep Willy, a classic open-air Colombian vehicle common in the region, and driven down into the tropical Hacienda Venecia coffee farm for a tour and a leisurely afternoon of swimming and relaxing. The tour was very informational and we all learned more about the growth, production, and distribution of a favorite treat. Also, it included all-you-can-drink espresso, so Don was in heaven. We had reservations to stay on the property that night, so we idled the afternoon away in a state of caffeinated happiness and that night Don made us all a tasty stir-fry dinner in the house´s kitchen. The next day involved a bit of tricky public transportation, but we managed well and made it out to the Termales San Vicente hot springs in fine shape. We spent most of the day relaxing in a variety of hot pools, natural hot springs, and turkish natural saunas, only getting out of the water in order to eat a trout lunch or a Colombian snack of aguapanela and cheese. Everyone enjoyed the beautiful setting of the hot springs, and even the dirt road out to the springs provided a good dose of coffee region scenery. From the hot springs, our day of travel wasn´t over. After getting back to the town of Pereira, we caught a crowded bus out to the tourist hot-spot of Salento, a cute colonial town set up in the mountains and surrounded by towering wax palms.
Salento is in the running for my favorite town on this trip. It is small, but its streets are charming, it has great street dogs, a few good restaurants, and is surrounded by breathtaking scenery. We only spent one full day in town, but we stayed 2 nights in a friendly hostel and got a feel for the town´s vibe. When we got up the first morning we took another Jeep Willy out to the Valle de Cocora and spent much of the day hiking around the valley. Unbeknownst to us, this was Armando´s first hike ever, and once we found that out, we felt very honored to have introduced him to our favorite activity (next time we´ll all go biking together!). He and Shannon both did great and we all enjoyed the day´s many photo-ops, made especially captivating by the fascinating wax palms which grow especially tall and only have leaves at the very top. Some of the scenes on the hike seemed straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. A couple hours into the hike we reached a hummingbird refuge where we sat with other tourists and watched the sweet little creatures buzz all around us for a bit. That afternoon, after getting a late lunch back in town, we made a bunch of new dog friends when we bought a bag of dog food and shared with the street dogs in the plaza. One thing we all share in common is our love for dogs, and we all felt the warm and fuzzies while watching the freshly-energized pups play with us and one another. This is something Don and I should have been doing all along!
We left the coffee region the next morning, opting for a daytime bus in order to avoid a sleepless night and to enjoy some views of the Colombian countryside. Unfortunately, the bus took over 9 hours due to traffic and road construction and the Colombian food had caught up to Shannon a bit and she wasn´t feeling great for most of the ride. Everyone was relieved when we finally got back into Bogota and we all made it an early night. The following day was Shannon and Armando´s last and they spent the first half seeing a couple more places they were interested in exploring while Don and I ran a few errands at the huge outdoor market. In the evening we all went to a final Colombian dinner together and then we saw the happy couple off, Don and I in a state of utter disbelief that yet another plan had been fulfilled and that we were only a day away from leaving this place for ourselves. With our final full day together, Don and I enjoyed Bogota´s Botero museum, watched a uniquely weird parade go down Carerra Septima, and mostly just tried to soak in as much of South America as we could in one afternoon. Everything felt surreal and we both felt a mix of emotions, but the recurring theme was that this place would be missed. South America is a special continent and we think Colombia was the perfect place to end our trip because it is a country injected with pride, hospitality, joy, and culture. We know we will be back someday, but until then, we will stay connected through our many new friends, the music, the language, and hopefully some of the food (we´re going to try cooking much of what we´ve eaten back in the states). Today, Don flew back to the states, where he will spend a month visiting family in Salem, Oregon and then friends in Portland and Bend. Tomorrow afternoon I leave on a flight to Rome, Italy where I´ll meet up with my mom for one month of travel around Italy, Switzerland, and France in celebration of her 60th birthday. I have a feeling that this next month will be very different from this last year, and I am looking forward to every moment of it. I´ll continue to blog about the adventures to come (Europe, dog sled guiding, hiking the PCT), but for now, this is a goodbye to our South America travels and 9 months of beauty and fun. Thank you for letting us share some of it with you. We hope you´ve enjoyed our stories, and that you´ll continue to check back to read about the adventures to come!