Salento

(This is a long one, partially because I included some specifics for a couple attractions. So get a bevvy handy.)

With Semana Santa upon us, we decided to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for the tiny Salento, with a population somewhere around 5,000 depending upon who you ask. From Bogota it’s another one of those short hop flights that take longer to board and deplane than actually in the air. You arrive outside Armenia and from there need to cab out to Salento. In our case, after heading down the ladder on to the tarmac we found that the baggage claim wasn’t working… all our luggage was just lined up as the unruly mob descended to claim their baggage. Grabbed our stuff, found a cab and for about 100,000 pesos (about $40) you can sit back and enjoy the view on your ride to Salento.  (Side note, you can also buy machetes and all sorts of knives at the Eden airport, about 20 feet from the security point for outgoing flights.)

Town itself Is fairly small and laid out in a 7 x 7 or so grid of Carreras and Calles with a little more “sprawl” heading off. Salento is picturesque and has some fantastic views. Tourism is huge there, both domestic and international… and during Semana Santa (holy week) it gets pretty crazy. But more on that later.

So Salento…

   

Town itself, as noted, is picturesque. People are mighty friendly. There are a lot of coffee places. I think we tried a good half dozen during our stay, enjoying each. The place is also awash in good restaurants and street food stands. We tried some of the “nicer” ones and some of the more “simple” ones and everything in between. I don’t’ think I walked away from a meal without a smile on my face. Partially due to pricing. Not an expensive place to dine out. Cheapest was the trout at Lucys for lunch. $3, with tip for a plate that included trout, potatoes, rice salad, plantain… For a great steak and eggs with a side of bacon salad (well, bacon, resting on lettuce on a side plate) courtesy of Brunch, the place, not the meal, was like $7.  As usual, portions were always pretty filling. Towards the end of our stay we basically had a snack for breakfast, ate a good lunch, and maybe something small for dinner. We were both stuffed.

    

And one beer place that offered something better than Club Colombia or Poker… though outside the Colombia vs Australia friendly was rather light on patrons. Shame, their Mysterio IPA was easily the best cerveza in town. (If you like good beer, and you read this, go there. On 6th/the main drag, just like two doors past 3rd on the way to the hill, right hand side.)

Things to do…

Beyond the touring the town itself, dining on some trout (trucha) and guzzling an absurd amount of coffee, here are The Big Things to do.

Coffee Tours!

It seems there are several fincas that offer tours, though Ocaso seems to be the popular one. We’d seen other travelers go there (Goats on the Road… their youtube vids are defo worth a watch), and with tours pretty much hourly and mostly in English, with, as I recall, the 10am and 3pm being the Spanish language versions. You can hike a couple KM from town or for a couple bucks hop in (or on) another Salento tradition, a Willy.

 

Tour was about $8 and well worth it. Jaime was very informative in showing/demonstrating the growing and harvesting processes, types of plants and how everything runs. They do give you a basket and put you to work searching for “cherries” that are fit for use. At the end you get to sample some rather excellent coffee.

Ocaso, in addition to giving you your own cuppa also has various wares for sale. I was able to get a 500g (1.1 pound) bag of their coffee for 21,000 pesos, around $7. They also have a little coffee house on site where you can enjoy more coffee and/or some tasty treats while relaxing and taking in a gorgeous view of the valley.

Rather than rush off to catch the next Willy home after the tour we opted to sample some of their Peaberry coffee we learned about during the tour. Watching them prepare our coffee was eye-opening. They don’t just pour you a cup from a pot sitting on heater. Instead they prep your coffee just for you with an immense attention to detail to ensure your coffee is the best it can be.

Before our host (chef?) measured out exactly the precise amount of grams of coffee to use, she grabbed a peck of the same beans to run through the grinder and ensure any residual flavors from the prior (and possibly different) beans were cleared. She also ran a small amount of piping hot water through the filter and into our coffee pot to remove loose fibers from the filter and slightly heat the glass pot to prevent against the initial temperature shock of hot liquid hitting cold glass. With those steps completed, the beans were weighed and ground, the filter and coffee pot were prepped and ready.  There was an initial splash of water to open up the coffee (like letting wine breath or adding a splash of water to your fine Islay Malt Scotch), she paused a few seconds before s-l-o-w-l-y pouring the rest of the water in.

Was like watching some cross between a scientific experiment procedure and art.

And yes, the coffee was brilliant.

 

Cocora Valley!

Home of the Wax Palms, absolutely beautiful. Some hit a towering 60m (200ft) in height.

There are two ways to do this, really. Once one takes a Willy from the town square and enjoys a scenic 30 minute or so ride you arrive at the start point. The valley is on a hiking loop trail of something like 8 to 10km and, depending upon who you ask, is anything from “a piece of cake” to “hell.” (Exact quotes provided to the proprietor of Brunch, where we went early that am to grab box lunches.)

If you feel like a hike, the best option seems to be to take the right branch. You’ll start off in a nice valley before heading into the “jungle” (well, closer to cloud forest) where you will have to cross the Seven Bridges Of Questionable Structural Integrity – though this might be eight, depending upon your full itinerary.

At a certain point the trail splits. You can continue on another kilometer to Acaime, where you can enjoy a hot chocolate with the hummingbirds. We skipped this, partially because we hadn’t yet advanced to the “hell” portion of the trail and I wanted to knock that out while still motoring, partially because we were playing a fun game of “beat the impending rain” (spoilers – it never came, though outside our trip to Ocaso and this, it did rain every other day we were in Salento, if just for a couple hours) and partially because of our trip to the nature reserve outside Quito a couple months prior where we already had hummingbirds buzzbombing our breakfast, lunch and dinner.

So at this point the trail does a hairpin turn back and welcome to the ‘hell’ part of the hike. The trail is something like 8-10km, two more if you do Acaime, and also has an altitude climb of 1km… most of which is in the next 30-40 minutes. Truthfully, it wasn’t too horrible. I was huffing and puffing… but we’ve been living in Bogota, which sits at 2,600+ meters (8,600ft) and I’ve been doing some stairs at a local park the equivalent of a 14 story climb. I’m neither in futbol shape, as fit as a fiddle and ready to run for 90 minutes, nor futbol shape, which is to say looking like I swallowed a futbol. I can see where the young travelers on walkabout in South America for three months hiking all over find it easy… and can see where even folks in decent shape but not ready for the jump from roughly 6,000ft to 9,000ft altitude could find it rough. I went in wanting to do it… and did. Katie didn’t think it difficult at all.

      

At roughly the peak you’ll be at 2,900m and supposedly there is a stop for lunch around here, as noted by the map I have, courtesy of a wall at Brunch. We missed it and weren’t too hungry at this point anyways.

Your reward for going this route is, provided you leave early enough in the morning, you might see some wildlife in the forest portion (I spotted a quail-like bird cutting the trail in front of us by maybe 15ft) … and the entire second half the hike is a slow, gradual, leisurely downhill stroll. Well, most of it.  We did find a nice, flat spot off the trail with a brilliant view and one, lonely palm. I dubbed it One Palm Point.

Further down you’ll find a couple miradors (scenic views) that jut off the trail. We explored these. Lots of pics taken. And as a side note, if following our path, after Mirador 1 , the second you will encounter (they are numbered as if you take the trail the opposite route), GET BACK ON THE TRAIL. We didn’t, so heed my warning. The toughest portion of the hike was NOT ascending the bulk of 1km in a 40 minute span… but rather trying to duckwalk down a hill with treacherous/shifty footing without going ass over teakettle and rolling, rolling, rolling all the way down hoping not to break anything.

Alternately, if you just want to see the palms and don’t want to do the whole loop, or whole loop plus (now with hot cocoa and hummingbirds!), you can just go forward/straight from where you get dropped off… which is the left hand path. Maybe a KM or so on a slow incline you’ll find the valley. You can do both miradors, do a 180 and take the same path out.

From there just find the Willy parking, get yourself a ride back to town and enjoy a fried trout or patacon con todo and a cerveza. You’ve earned it, my friend.

 

Other things to enjoy

Tejo

If drinking beer and lobbing rocks at black-powder packed packets of paper hoping for detonation sounds like your thing, read on. If not, skip this bit.

There are a couple places to play Tejo in town, we opted for Los Amigos Tejo.

Los Amigos has three full tejo alleys(?), which effectively doubles to six for tourists as rather than the full 20 meters away, they park us noobs around 7 meters or so from the mound, which makes it an explosive form of cornhole, almost, as opposed to the games locals play. Grab your tejo (the game is named for the rock you throw, various sizes, smaller are easier to throw, the larger/heavier ones more likely to go boom!) and lob at the target, a circle ringed with six explosive packets of paper. Scoring is simple. Land inside the circle AND cause an explosion, that’s 9 points. 6 for landing in the ring sans detonation, 3 for just getting a piece of paper to go boom and if all players fail the above (90% of tosses, probably) whoever lands in the mud ramp closest to the rings gets a point. First to 21 wins. Hooray. Don’t forget to re-pack your mud after each round.

After my first couple tosses were either on target or a Maxwell Smart “missed it by *that much*” off target I moved myself back to about half way.  Felt proud until a couple locals came in and started arcing their tejos the full 20 meters of the court. I tried once from full distance, downgrading to a smaller tejo, and hit the backstop… not bad, but went back to my closer distance before the mix of cerveza, lack of skill and a mud covered rock resulted in a wild pitch accidentally drilling another gamer the next lane over in the cabeza.

Games are cheap, I think we paid a little over 50 mil for 3 games and 3 beers each, about $18 … so $3 each per round of tejo coupled with a fresh bottle of aiming fluid.

Had a lot of fun, but as a head’s up, you and your clothes will smell like gunpowder when done.

 

Kasaguadua Nature Reserve

Maybe 30 minutes on foot outside town along the dirt road that leads to the coffee fincas/plantations is Kasaguadua Nature Reserve. It’s a carefully run reserve that has a limited number of tours per day – as determined by the maximum number of people that can be allowed into the reserve on any day without interfering or negatively impacting the environment. Additionally, you can actually stay here as well, limited to something like six guests total. The tour takes about two hours, isn’t particularly physically taxing, particularly after Cocora, and is extremely informative and interesting. You get to learn all about the microclimates of the cloud forest, the differences between that and your “typical” forest in, say, Europe or the US/Canada. It is truly fascinating how everything develops with everything else in the little areas in a symbiosis. Great tour. Cost is 25mil ($8 US), well worth it knowing what your donation/price of admission goes to help preserve.

Book in advance. And well in advance, I imagine, if you want to stay there.

 

All in all really enjoyed our time in Salento. Seven days might have been pushing it a little bit, perhaps could have trimmed a day or two off, or planned better and included a daytrip by bus to another of the towns in the coffee region, but every day was fun.

Also of note, maybe avoid during Semana Santa (the week leading to Easter) … while it wasn’t bad the first couple nights in town, the crowds grew. And grew. And grew. By the end of the week the quiet calles and carreras were a lot of hustle and bustle. And stopping short and suddenly or lots of swerving for people who thought nothing of coming to a dead halt to take selfies or group pics.  We left around 1pm on Good Friday. We had negotiated with our cabbie who dropped us off in Salento at the start of our week… rather he volunteered and we agreed to schedule the pickup. One less thing to worry about. He arrived in town rather early to make sure he’d be on time to take us out, and we saw why first hand as we begin the super-extended dance remix drive back through Armenia and to the airport.  So the tiny little town that almost entirely centers around a 7 x 7 grid of streets had a line of traffic extending no less than 3km out of town, all trying to get in. Our cabbie said it took him two hours earlier that morning, and the line was longer as we left. He was lucky, got in early enough to enjoy a lunch. Needless to say, his tip covered his lunch cost and more for his time and patience.

And there was a certain irony to it all as the quiet little town to escape the hubbub and furor of Bogota life was jam packed with throngs of people and upon our return to Bogota (including in-cab movie, Guardians of the Galaxy on the long ride across town) we found our Chapinero neighborhood virtually deserted. Ah, the peace and quiet of a city of around 10,000,000 people.

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Cali

Soooooo our departure from Guayaquil was delayed by six hours. In itself not too terrible, I suppose. But it meant a flight that would have had us in Cali before 9pm – able to go through customs, ride into town and check in at a decent hour so we could wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed for our first of two full days in Cali was no more.

Nope.

Our flight was delayed and delayed. And delayed. 7pm takeoff soon became well after midnight. We were the last people in the airport… almost seemed like something out of that cheesy for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Langoliers”, only without Bronson “Balki” Pinchot as a fellow Craig tearing paper into strips and muttering to himself.

I did take advantage of the delay to go to social media to see if I should splurge on a Panama Hat (a product of Ecuador, not Panama)  that I had my eye on. Yays outnumbered the nays, amusingly almost divided entirely upon gender. Guys said “no” overwhelmingly, while my amigas were overwhelmingly in favor. Guess the ladies thought I looked good and the guys where worried their ladies would think I looked good. Tee-hee.

The votes are in. Hellllooo Ladies.

So we didn’t actually land in Cali until about 1:30am or so. And due to a bleary-eyed typo exchanging info during the delays we were unable to communicate our arrival with our airBNB host. Which lead to us riding around Cali in a taxi trying to find our place, to find no one there. Gave up. “To the nearest hotel!”  At 3am or so we finally arrived at the Marriott. We may or may not have been upsold significantly… we ended up with a $300+/night suite with sitting room and a super comfy king-size bed.

Next day – er a few hours later that morning – we woke up a bit sluggish, exhausted and stressed from the prior day. Tough to get out of that bed. Wow comfy.  (Side note – airBNB host was able to reach us the following morning, exchanged what happened, airline delays, an error in someone’s WhatsApp number. We were given a full refund, so kudos to our would-be host. Sorry it didn’t work out.)

With all that behind us, we were finally took to the city. Which just added even more confusion to the mix. For some reason the Marriott showed up on one side of the river on Google Maps, so I planned our adventures accordingly… only to find GPS had us a couple KM or so away on the other side of the river. After meandering around we finally got our bearings and found the Cali river walk – lots of interesting Christmas décor still up, but was pretty quiet. A local park adjacent to the river nearly had tumbleweeds blowing through.

Fast forward to that evening when we went out again for dinner… it was PACKED. Throngs of people were out celebrating. Lights on. All the vendor stalls abandoned during the day were offering all sorts of goodies. Juices. Cervezas. Chorizo. Various meats on a stick. Mazorca. Crafts. Performers. Was a walking fiesta and seemingly everyone in the greater Cali area was invited and in attendance. Us happily in tow.

 

Second day we walked farther down the river to Cali’s cool cat statute which is in a park where another dozen plus cat sculptures are also present. Each artist took a cat mold designed by one artist… and give their cat their own spin. Lots of interesting concepts, like a battered cat with one leg in a cast and another injured amongst other injuries represented a cat that had spent 8 of it’s 9 lives. Another was adorned with famous cats. My personal fave looked like the feline equivalent of Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies.

   

After checking a local brewery, Ritual (decent, working on improving, kicking off the trend in Cali), some dinner… and back out to the last night of the post-Christmas/NYE/Salsa festival festivities.

All in all, had a whopping 52 hours in the city… and enjoyed what we were able to see. And while we missed Salsafest, we were at least blessed to hear some in their salsa-blaring, trumpet looking statue near the Riverwalk and were joined on our flight home by the 47 members of Grupo Niche. If unfamiliar, you can add your +1 to the 100,000,000(!) views of their song, Sin Sentimiento here on YouTube.

My oh so subtle attempt to snap a pic with 6 of the 47 members of the entourage.

All said and done, we were happy to try to sneak a couple pics of the band at the Bogota baggage claim, hop in our taxi and head home after 3 weeks on the road.

Great trip, even with some of the chaos at the end.

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Guayaquil

So following Quito (and a Christmas with 50 moto-mounted Santas) we went to Guayaquil for a week, to include New Year’s Eve, with its very own special entry which I have conveniently linked.

For Monty Python fans, Spot The Looney

Guayaquil, a city of 4m and the largest in Ecuador, sits on the Rio Guayas, with a bridge connecting a nearby island and continuing to the opposite side of the river where you’ll find the town of Duran (insert “Rio”, “Duran Duran” and “dancing on the sand” jokes here). We stayed on the riverfront to the end of a pretty cool river walk with a couple hills immediately behind us.

Not sure if it was the spike in heat & humidity or just being a tad weary in the legs after hiking up, Up, UP and around Quito or the sweet seduction of air conditioning following ventures into the heat and humidity of the nearby town, but we didn’t do nearly as much.

Truth be told, if you look at things to do or see in Guayaquil and then consult a map, you’ll realize they are all pretty much lined up nicely. From our place in Torre Bellini (complete with it’s own view of Creepy Clown Statue, Pennywise, which was moved or rotated daily), following the river we passed through the river walk with a good number of (surprisingly expensive when compared to The Big Q) restaurants, which as you followed along gave way the colorful Barrio Las Penas. Take a 90 degree turn away from the river and up you go along the steps of Cerro Santa Ana to see the Lighthouse on top.

 

Descend back down with a slight right turn and you’ll be back along the river on the Malecon 2000, a boardwalk with more restaurants as well as other notable things to see… La Perla (the Ferris Wheel), the Hemiciclo de Rotunda, a monument which commemorates the meeting of Simón Bolivar and Jose de San Martin who lead the fight against Spanish rule throughout the countries of South America. Further along head a couple blocks in and big church and Iguana Park!

    

You get the idea. And pictures of reptiles.

     

We did book ourselves a trip to Hacienda La Danesa, a farm/lodge some hour away from Guayaquil. The trip itself was enjoyable, seeing both some Ecuadorian small towns as well as non-mountain countryside. And lots of Viejos. And men in drag. At least there was on December 31, when we went. Pre-NYE festivities.

 

Got to do a bike tour of some of the grounds on big, FAT tire bikes, got a lesson in Chocolate, including trying our hand at grinding some ourselves, an exercised which would come in handy later in our upcoming trip to Salento, Colombia, home of another highly addictive and enjoyable C…..E vice. Coffee.  After the chocolate lessons as well as learning a bit about some of the plants on the grounds followed by a thoroughly enjoyable lunch and a little time just relaxing in the bucolic and beautiful shaded lounge area. And milked a cow.

 

Not a lot to write about, in retrospect we could have compressed our trip to Guayaquil into maybe 3 days and seen even more of Ecuador. Instead our trip ended up lasting even LONGER as our flight to Cali was delayed, oh, about six hours or so and more happy foibles. But that’s there, not here, and thus in my next upcoming entry.

 

Beer Notes –

Not much to report. Tried a couple at a place in the trendy bar/restaurant section near our building (good mix of locals – or at least Ecuadorians – and tourists) … and it was the “Rule of Three”  again, Rubio, Rojo or Negro. Suffice it say, Quito spoiled us.

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New Year’s Eve In Guayaquil

Didn’t have big plans for the big night, as had a day trip planned for the, erm, day and who knew what we’d be up for. Our excursion (again, more on that later) had us going some 70km from Guayaquil. En route we saw people selling “viejos”, various papier-mâché creations designed to represent the old year. These creations used to be likenesses of generic people or politicians/famous figures, but have now morphed to pop-culture to further interest children.

Passing down the road, particularly at Naranjito, on Dec 31 with clocks ticking you’ll pass blocks of them. Ranging from small dogs or minions up to massive 6 foot Captain Americas, Supermen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Minotuars wearing jerseys of local futbol teams all with the build of a He-Man figure. So twice the body mass of Terry “President Dwayne Elizando Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho” Crews. Apparently the midsized ones go for about $40 and the big ones can go for $250… in a country where for most people $250 might as well have an extra 0 on the end.

You’ll see cars, taxis with these strapped to the roof a la Tj Hooker, standing on the beds of pick-up trucks and even sandwiched between the driver and passenger of a motorcycle. We also saw them in the front yards of probably half the houses we passed. One even had a Thanos (Avengers Infinity War villain) on a throne a full story tall. No joke, the top of his oversized purple dome was on the level of the tienda (market) next door. Not sure how much $$$ he costs, nor the time spent in creating him…

So coming back from our day trip, the excitement was ramped up, as was the urgency of vendors selling “viejos”. On the return trip it wasn’t just the vendors on the side of the street… instead there were groups of kids and 20-30yo men, in drag (and we’re not talking Ru-Paul’s “Drag Race” drag, but picture random latino construction worker with 5 o’clock shadow in a black cocktail dress with wig and lipstick drag.) They’ll make a string clothesline across the street so drivers have to slow down to a crawl to pass. One hombre even stuffed the backside of his dress and was shaking his best Nicki Minaj “assets” at traffic. (No pics, sadly, would have been obligated to buy and didn’t have the scratch.)

So we get back to our apartment, relax, go for some cervezas and ceviche, return for Netflix and chill.

flexing for scale.

Pop-pops of random fireworks and firecrackers started going off around 10:30pm, non-stop. At 11:50 I decided to go out and see what was going on. Or off, rather.

Fireworks were already detonating, building in intensity. The guards outside our apartment/airBNB directed me to the best view point, conveniently just the opposite side of the adjacent tower. As the clock struck midnight the fireworks hit a crescendo.

The sound was crazy. For starters I was sitting maybe 50 feet from where the fireworks were being launched. Well the nearby fireworks. From my POV, impeded by our own airBNB towers and two hills (450 steps high) there were at least 7 different locations each with their own show going on. Oh, and pretty much the entirety of the bridge was launching low altitude fireworks as well. So pretty much any direction you looked.

(Side note, to all my Tucsonan amigos, one of the two hills/barrios behind us managed to set itself on fire a la “A” Mountain. Can you say “Sister City”?”)

After the crescendo things weren’t done.

Not yet.

Remember those viejos?

Well, piled in the dirt lot where they were launching the fireworks from was a big mound, 10 feet tall and wider around. Due to regulations in our rather touristy area, the center of the viejo mound merely consisted of a pile of firecrackers and the viejos were doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Apparently in ‘the slums” (term repeatedly used by an English-speaking Guayaquil native who was our tour guide earlier in the day) with less regulation these can be stuffed with “explosivos” so mere burning isn’t enough. Only detonation of the bad things of the outgoing year will suffice.

Once the fireworks had died down the mound was set ablaze, much to the joy of the assembled masses. Flames quickly rose high and as they worked their way inward the firecrackers started going off. The noise was amplified, reverbating off nearby Bellini Torres 4 & 5 (or  3 & 4…. Whatever. Torre 2! /flashes signs). While I approached relatively close, as close as the nearest ring of observing Ecuadorians, once the fire started to die down a little bit, the bulk of the viejos reduced to ash, I quickly backed up as the fire stokers (or flat out pyromaniacs) started lobbing actual fireworks, not firecrackers, into the fire.

Fireworks sure are swell at a distance, when up in the sky. When at ground zero (emphasis on ground), time to GTFO of Dodge.

All in all, New Year’s Eve holds no special magic for me anymore. I’m north of 40, been there, done that. Blah bLah blah. Mostly view it as “Amateur Night”. My hat is off to Guayaquil for Making New Years Great Again.

 

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Quito

Quito… ECUADOR!

(cue Sash!)

Oh Quito, such a fun yet odd place for a Christmas Holiday. Lots of fun. Odd in that we got to see about 50 people dressed as Santa on Motos drive down 12 de Octubre, some with Mrs Claus riding on the back, some kids riding along on bikes.  I also got to watch people set a small campfire on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building and about two dozen watch it. Per our guard was nothing special. (If you know why, email me.  Gracias.)

So, yeah, Quito.

We arrived the Sunday before Christmas for a 10 day stay. After checking out our immediate neighborhood, stocking up on coffee, Pilsener (Ecuador’s version of cheap, watery South American lager) and some food staples for cooking in our airBNB, we checked out a nearby brewery, Abysmo (decent), and waved at the Paraguayan embassy next door.

Not too bad a view, eh?

Monday we got up and decided to hit Old Town. The President, Lenin Moreno pulled out all the stops to welcome us. Full on crowd, parade with soldiers and horsemen in dress uni’s, all the important people on the balcony to greet us, complete with speech.

Oh wait, nevermind. Apparently the President addresses the people every Monday and we just literally stumbled into it, almost getting bowled over by the cavalry. Oh well, at least that likely means the protestors shouting at him weren’t there for me.

The whole downtown area is wonderful to take in, you can see why it was granted UNESCO heritage status. Lots of hills, though, at 2850m/9300 feet in the air can take a toll.  And in addition to the obvious concerns with altitude (not for us, coming from Bogota, just a hundred meters and change lower) is the STRENGTH of the Sun. On a blue sky day your weather app might read 65F/18C, but the Sun will fry you. If feels a good 20F/12C hotter than it really is. It’s not uncommon to see locals toting umbrellas, not just for impending rain, but existent Sun as well or running around with their arms spread over their heads, coats out like Angel or Spike running around in the daylight in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode.

So back to the old city… We did get to check out a good chunk of it on foot, including several churches that don’t allow internal photos to be taken. You can see why, particularly in the San Francisco Church where you can clearly see the damage time has done to some of the artwork. The Metropolitan Cathedral, adjacent to the Presidential Palace is definitely worth the paltry price of admission as you can see more than just the church, but continue back to see what else comprises the monastery… the library, etc.

We hiked up to the Notre Dame-looking Basilica del Voto Nacional, but more on that later as we would return, before calling it Day 1.

Day 2 we opted to take the TelefiQo up the nearby volcano Pichincha. Took a wrong fork while doing the hike up at the top and instead of doubling back and following the primary trail we doubled down and continued on the one we stumbled upon. Ended up with a pretty good view of the actual volcano.

Followed that up returning to the Basilica where we ascended the towers upwards. You basically take a rickety bridge over the spine of the church before a steep staircase takes you to the roof of the church. Katie then ascended another steep ladder (outside this time) up to the Condor’s Nest. Not good with heights, not thrilled at nothing between a stumble and flying in a fashion absolutely nothing like a condor, opted to hang back. Pressed hard against the wall of the Basilica.

We followed that up with some craft beer at Bandidos Del Paramo – two breweries sharing one pretty nice building to bring barley sodas to the people. Bandidos Hop Rey IPA and Guapa American Pale Ale were great (Paramo’s Oktoberfest and APA were also enjoyable) – putting pretty much most of what I’ve had in Colombia to shame. Kudos to the brewers of Quito.

We took off for a couple days to the Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Ecolodge for an overnighter. Was a two hour or so drive from Quito, windy mountain roads with brilliant scenery. The Lodge itself is some 23km off the main highway through a village, then another 7km on a dirt road, seemingly in the boonies. (Amusingly you pass the Mittad del Mundo monument on your way out of Quito, so you go from Middle of the Earth to Middle of Nowhere in about 95 minutes.)

The place itself as magical. Cross a bridge over the Alambi River to a pretty cool lodge. Our lodgings were river view so we had the nice white noise of rolling water to help relax when not out hiking.

 

So yeah, managed in 26 hours “botas” on the ground (they issue you rubber boots… they get like 9 inches of rain a week, so pretty much mandatory) to do a two-hour swamp hike with guide Arcenio and a short nature walk to a nearby waterfall before the afternoon rains came (and a welcome nap) followed by a two hour bird watching effort and another 90 minute river view loop hike the following morning. Learned a bit about the indigenous wildlife, absolutely failed to see the Spectacled Bears Katie was so hoping to see (missed by a couple days), but did see about 20 species of birds, including ten Hummingbirds a humming, eight Tanagers a-tanning, seven Motmots a molting, six Tyrant Flycatchers catching, five black condors and a green Toucan in a green tree. (Phew). Or something like that, you get the point.

On the way back our (awesome) driver Gonzalo took us through the misty mountains, now obscured almost completely by clouds – like something out of Stephen King’s “The Mist” – and to a few sights.

First was Pululahua, a volcano with a fantastic view of the crater… normally. As with most the mountains we had driven past earlier in the morning the entire thing was obscured by clouds. Made for a pretty interesting/weird view. Gonzalo had a postcard in his cab, so we were able to see what we would have seen.

Next stop was the actual equator. Not the one with the big towering monument – turns out that while the Franco-Spanish explorers who measured with Earth with the instruments of the times around 1736 were very close, they were off by about 250 meter or so.

Some enterprising locals then went on to build up a museum/site with a lot of local history (perhaps overdramatized by the guides… I wouldn’t recommend the “penisfish” drinking game as unless you have my tolerance, a sip each time “watch out swimming in the jungle river for the penisfish” is said will floor lightweights.)  Followed by some exhibits at the actual GPS-verified Equator.

Following that we went to the far more grand, but incorrect, “Fakequator” for a look around before heading home.

Saturday was fairly quiet, just looked around Plaza Fochs (lots of restaurants, bars) and hiked over to the Parque Carolina for a look around. Nice park, dog park section for those with four-legged buddies, pedal boats, skate park, some vendors selling Ceviche, water, etc.

Sunday am we were up bright and early and off to the Cotopaxi Volcano. We booked a Hike ‘n Bike trip. A busload of travelers from all over (Switzerland, China, New Zealand, France, Germany, Brasil) joined forces to have a merry ol’ time. The bus took us to the park, some 50km or so from Quito and all the way up to about 4,500m (about 14,750feet). From there, despite being an hour from the Equator, during “summer” (at least for those south of it) the temperatures dropped to near freezing.

We trudged our way, slowly, up some 350m more to the refuge where climbers, erm, take refuge for a day or so before doing the two day climb to the actual top. From there after a few minutes to visit the baños or chow down some more cocoa leaves (I was enjoying a cocoa leaf lollipop, which helped and hindered a tad. Tasted great, cocoa-power to help with altitude versus a big, spherical pop in my mouth impeding air intake.)  While we were trudging before, the remaining 150m up featured more treacherous footing on already light oxygen. Basically most our ragtag group of extranjero funseekers were shuffling like zombies in The Walking Dead at this point. Head’s down, pushing ever onward. We lost some along the way, as did other groups. Just had to toss in the towel.  I nearly did with the top in view, save for an Ecuadorian family there with their young kids. One was struggling as badly as I was (I had paused and shared a rock with them for a 2 minute breather)  passed me, just muttering “!Vamos!” with each ponderously slow step. “iVamos!” (3 count, shuffle) “iVamos!”. I glanced at him, “iListo!” and continued up. We hit 5000m, about 16,404 feet, the glacier line. Woohoo! A couple minutes later we began the return trek. Was a bit easier, what with gravity doing some of the work, though the treacherous footing had a few of us nearly take a tumble. (Side note, Katie didn’t find it terribly tough. Not even top 25… the hike surely wasn’t that difficult, but the breathing sure was.)

Next came the bike portion… riding on slippery rock roads on wobbly legs, with rocky road doing a bunch of cutbacks down the mountain. Some 17 (of 26) of us started, wary of danger thanks to the safety lecture (which made the prior Penisfish admonitions seem quaint) … two others and I pulled the plug maybe 200m in. I had almost no control and while I could have completed it, would have been nothing but 30minutes stress rather than a fun experience. Katie was slower going, riding the brake pretty much the entire way, but finished. (She is bad ass, I am fat ass.) We then returned to Quito, lunch along the way, said “Adios!” to all our new compadres and basically took the rest of the day and Christmas off.

We closed out Quito on Tuesday with a look around our neighborhood… up and coming, some restaurants a little more autentico and less touristy than Plaza Fochs with a lot of street art, as well as a final trip to a couple near by breweries and pubs (Hops Craft Beer Pub is worth a visit) before packing up for our next stop, Guayaquil.

   

 

 

Final verdict on our first 10 days in Ecuador? Cue the old Drew Carey Show theme song and sing along… “Quito Rocks! Quito Rocks!”

 

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Guatape

We decided to “Opt Outside” for Black Friday during our trip to Medellin for a daytrip to El Peñon near Guatape. La roca (as it’s also called) is disputed between two towns, El Peñol and Guatape. Two hours by bus, you can get dropped off along the road maybe a half mile or so from the actual entry point to the park. Most hike it, but there are a couple guys who will (for a small price) tuk-tuk you most the way. We opted to tuk it. Why not?

There is a switchback cement staircase with 650 steps leading to the top of the rock, followed by another 90 to ascend a tower located at the summit , thus 740 steps will get you to the top of the tower on the top of the rock. Phew.

Also “phew” as while 740 steps isn’t too terrible, I suppose, your starting point isn’t exactly sea level. The top is at just over 7,000ft (2,130+ meters) … so there was some huffing and puffing going on. And not only from me.

   

The view at the summit is incredible and is a full 360 degrees.

   

After taking in some ice cream and a pineapple juice from vendors at the top (passed on a cerveza… needed my legs for the walk down), we took in the view for a good while before descending. Descending was actually more harrowing than the climb. Slow people and steps that extended maybe 70% of my size 11’s  had me duck walking down and rendered my legs jello by the time we got to the bottom. Fortunately our tuk-tuk guy was waiting at the base of the rock and for 15,000 pesos ($5) would drive us all the way to Guatape, which is still a couple KM from the rock.

Along the way in “The Limozeen of Tuk-tuks” (his term, though I altered spelling of Limo in homage to Strongbad) he slowed for a couple houses on the way to “Guatapulco” (his term, again, he’s gots the wordplay, mixing tourist magnet Guatape with Acapulco) to show the paneled artwork along the bases of the houses, showcasing pictures of Llamas, the Rock, flowers.  He explained this wasn’t a thing to attract tourists, but a practice that dates back a couple hundred years and even houses that were a ways away from the restaurants, etc, were still done up.

Tuk Life

After he dropped us off in town, we decided to skip on walking around to take in the picturesque place to gobble down some well-earned lunch, not to mention a well-earned cerveza. Fortuitous. Partway through our meal it started dumping down rain. Just as we finished a feast for a king, consisting of grilled trout with (a LOT) of cheese, ajiaco soup for her and bandeja paisa for me, it cleared up giving us perfect weather for a stroll through town.

  

After walking up and down the streets, enjoying the vibe, colors and feel, it started to rain again. Fortunately we were able to trade in our bus tickets for an earlier ride and returned back to Medellin.

 

 

Notes for travelers who are going to Medellin, want to visit Guatape and somehow stumbled across this blog:

– Getting there from Medellin isn’t terribly difficult. Or expensive. Take a cab to the north bus terminal, from there ask someone at the info kiosk. “Guatape?” and they will point you to the correct kiosk (there are something like 30 to 40 of ’em) to get your bus tickets. The tickets themselves are pretty cheap. Like almost shockingly so. Maybe $7 each, one way?

– The rock sits between two towns, and is a couple KM outside (BEFORE) Guatape. The bus will stop there, our driver simply announced “La Roca!” and all us gringo tourists got off. You don’t need to go all the way to Guatape only to have to double back to the rock.

– You can also buy your tix to return to Medellin at this drop off spot. Hooray, convenience. I think the last returning bus is something like 6pm. Maybe 6:30pm. Though, as noted, we had no trouble exchanging ours in town for an earlier return.

– Our entire foray took maybe four hours or so, from the time the bus dropped us off at the tuk tuk guys until we boarded a bus back to Medellin. Was ample time to climb the rock, take it in, take pictures, take more pictures, enjoy our ice cream, take it in once again, along with a few more pics, head into town, enjoy a leisurely one hour lunch or so, and stroll through the majority of the town. If the day is clearer, you can spend more time if you’d like to get on board one of the boats that offer lake tours.

Frankly, my Spanish is terribad and hers terriworse. We stumbled through this without any more detail than the above, and believe we spent maybe 100,000 pesos or so (about $35), in all for transportation. That includes the cabs to get us from the Poblado area of Medellin to the North bus terminal, busing back and forth, both tuk-tuk trips and the return taxi from the bus terminal to our apartment. And even then, probably a full 10,000 pesos of that was “rent” for our cab, you know, the meterbleed when the cab sits inert in traffic.  So swerve the $80+ tours you find online, the additional money is better spent on ice cream on top of the rock and a nice bandeja paisa and cold cerveza for lunch.

 

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Medellin

For Thanksgiving weekend we took a short trip to “The City Of Eternal Spring”, Medellin.  Plan was two days in town sandwiching a daytrip to Guatape. Enough time to get a feel of the city.

The nickname is merited, with Medellin being a tad warmer than Bogota, 70’s every day (still feels significantly warmer under direct sunlight than the raw number indicates) with the evenings being less chilly as well.

We stayed in a hotel/airBNB maybe a 15 minute walk to the trendy, bar and restaurant saturated Poblado neighborhood. We arrived late enough on Wednesday that after touching down at the airport and the long, windy road to Medellin that only a handful of restaurants were even open and able to deliver on Rappi.

Thanksgiving day we started off taking a cab to Plaza Botero, famous for the dozen or so bulbous sculptures that Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero donated to the city. We took in the busy plaza, enjoying the sculptures and the architecture of some of the nearby buildings. We remained a bit wary as our cab driver was nice enough to point out where NOT to wander off to from the plaza.

 

The plaza and nearby neighborhood were busy, some turistas like us taking pictures, lots of local vendors selling their wares… lots. And lots of every day people doing their shopping. Was a bit frustrating not being able to take 7 steps without being asked to buy something or just give people money… I’m accustomed to it, it’s a daily occurrence in Bogota and wasn’t uncommon in Asuncion, Paraguay, but this was a bit excessive.

We strolled down a walkway with more outside markets selling sunglasses, t-shirts, Pablo Escobar merchandise and eventually found a former palatial building which used to host government offices but some time ago was sold to private investors who turned it into a shopping mall. The entire, massive footprint (pun intended) of the first floor and some of the second are ENDLESS stores selling sneakers, trabs, running shoes, kicks, whatever you call them. Was a weird juxtaposition of seeing this fancy, well designed building merged with, say, Mercado 4 from Asuncion.

Feeling a bit hungry as well as tired of being asked solicited every 47 seconds, we hopped a cab* and headed to Parque Lleras in Poblada, a small park in a much more tranquilo neighborhood. We wandered a bit before heading to a Peruvian place for lunch. We both enjoyed our lunches (I, paradoxically, ordered an Argentine cut of steak at a Peruvian sushi-centric place) and were pleasantly surprised by the bill. We were anticipating it to be a bit pricy, but apparently it was happy hour (Thursday, 1pm?) and our entire meal was half off! Steak, chicken, shrimp cocktail, beer, coffee and water all for $20.

After hiking back to our room to for a short rest we returned to Poblado to take in some craft beer, take in Parque Poblado and grab some pizza from friend-recommended Zorba. Yep, Greek name, Italian food. Good pizza, great hummus, though all vegetarian.


Black Friday we decided to “Opt Outside” and head to Guatape, which has  it’s own entry with lots of pics.

For our last day in Medellin we again opted to leave the city. Sort of. This time we took a cab to the metro to the metrocable to fly over a barrio that is perhaps a tad infamous and now thanks to metrocable, better connected to Medellin and improving, then continued over a few resilient farmers living and working way the heck up on the mountainside to continue on another 10-15min to Parque Avri, all so we could take a short hike.

 

Lots of beautiful views, both of the city in one direction and a whole lotta green in the other. Kinda like Monserrate here in Bogota.

Finished off with a return to Poblado for a few more craft beers and some dinner at well regarded Oci.Mde for some great ribs, better caipirinha and The Ramones “Pet Semetary”  (and other tunes) playing at such volume (we were seated right below the speaker at the bar) as to render conversation nearly impossible.

Weekend closed out with a morning taxi ride way up one of the hills to the airport. Arrival was in the dark, departure was in a misty morning. Enjoyed the city and hope to return to see a bit more.

Items of note – No beer suggestion, best we had were just beers they brought in from Bogota. Also modes of travel for this trip included: taxi, plane, tuk-tuk, metro and metrocable.

 

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