Month: August 2014

Lake Titicaca: Puno and Copacabana

With the new way I had decided to travel – land border crossings – I ended up at Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. So I figured why not see the lake while I was here.

We started with a day on the Peru side in Puno. Puno itself doesn’t have much to offer at all, but our hostel had an assortment of half and full day tours to book so we opted for the half day Uros floating island tour. This is the main highlight from the Peru side, and it had some interesting qualities to it, but more so it left me with an impression of hypertourism.

The interesting part came from how many ways this community has used the reeds that grow in the lake: a group of houses made from reeds sits on an island constructed from the reeds, floating on blocks assembled from the roots. They even eat the reeds. The hypertourism was evident in the entire experience: first we boarded a boat where a guy was playing The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di on a guitar and reed wind instrument, and after finishing he of course asked for money. When we arrived at the island, they reenacted how they construct each community with miniature models. Then we were divided into pairs and brought into houses where they tried to sell us things; and as we later learned, most of them didn’t even live in these houses, they were there just to show the tourists. As we left on a traditionally constructed rowboat (for an extra 10 Bs), they sang a few songs, and after rowing for about 10 minutes a motorboat came up alongside us and attached, motoring us to the next island, where they sold traditional quinoa bread and would stamp your passport. The entire thing felt manufactured and a bit exploitative, both of this community and us. No wonder the Uros who still do live traditionally don’t want these tours coming to their islands.

The Bolivian side was much better. To cross the border, we booked a “tourist bus” through our hostel. It left at 7:30 am from Puno and we were at the Bolivian border about 3 hours later. After being rushed through a cambio (money change) and our exit stamp, we walked over to Bolivia for our entry stamp. At this point the bus driver ran up to me, the only American on the bus, to escort me through the visa process. As an American I had to fill out a visa application and pay $135 in pristine, unripped US dollars. At least after this painful process I got to cut the line for my entry stamp. I now have a 90 day Bolivia visa that is good for 5 years, so if anyone wants to go to Bolivia any time in the next 5 years let me know! I have to make good use of that $135. (Same goes for Brazil and Argentina, those are good for 10 years and cost me $160 a piece.)

Copacabana, Bolivia is right on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and it seems to be the town where hippies go to retire. People attempted to lure us into lakeside restaurants while juggling, promoting 2 for 1 happy hour all day from their rooftop restaurants. Seeing how it was lunch time, we did end up on the roof, and I enjoyed my first watery Bolivian beer in sun with a view of the lake. I also started to learn that Bolivianos are an annoying conversion: 7 to 1. Dividing by 7 was not a common occurrence in my life before, but I got very good at it during my time in Bolivia. So that 600 ml beer for 20 Bs cost me less than 3 dollars. Sweet. And our private 3-bed (we picked up another traveler in Puno) ensuite “hostel” room that was more like a hotel room and came with a fantastic breakfast for 60 Bs per person was actually less than $9 a night. 

Our only full day in Copacabana we spent on Isla del Sol. The boat ride to get there was a slow 3 hours but the island itself was beautiful. We started on the north, wandering through and past ruins built high up on the island’s hills, before we walked all the way to the south. At 4100 m elevation, if you have any elevation issues I don’t recommend attempting this walk. Our boat dropped us off an hour late, giving us only 4 hours to complete this hike. Jasmin was not doing well with the elevation so we took it a little more cautiously, but even so we made good time. Not good enough though.

Our boat was leaving from the south at 3:40, and we realized we were cutting it close so I moved ahead to get to the port in time while Jasmin and Val kept their pace. I arrived at the docks at exactly 3:40 to see our boat leave. It knew we were coming to meet it but that didn’t matter. We were forced to pay another 20 Bs to get the 4:00 boat back or stay the night on the island. It was hard to not see this as a way to make more money off of us.

Leaving aside the unfortunate boat incident, the island itself is worth a visit. The walk was satisfyingly hilly, making me feel like I got some exercise (which was very welcomed after 3 days on buses) and the scenery was stunning. We traveled past white sand beaches and tree-covered hilltops, all with a view over deep blue water and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

The next day we hung out on a rooftop again before taking the 1:30 bus to La Paz. It was a short visit to Lake Titicaca, but any longer I think would have been too long. The chill town of Copacabana was a nice stop, and if you like just hanging out on a roof with a beer and not much else to do then it’s definitely for you. 

Thoughts from Parque Tayrona

July 30, 2014. “An adjustment about this whole experience has been the complete freedom to do anything I want whenever I want, including nothing. I was sitting on a boulder overlooking the sea, watching waves crash. Sometimes I let my mind wander, sometimes I played with my camera, sometimes I thought about what to do with the rest of my evening or about all the travel I had to do the next day. But no matter what I did or thought about, I didn’t have to justify it to anyone. So if in this beautiful moment I wanted to just stare at the sea, go for it. If I wanted to play with my camera settings, ok. This is just me. All I have to do is nothing. All I have to do is me, whatever that means.”

I Slept on Buses 3 Nights in a Row Just to Get to Bolivia

At some point in every Round the World trip, you have to suffer some long, painful travel experiences. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I spent 3 days just getting from Baños to Lake Titicaca.

Me and Jasmin on one of the many buses

Me and Jasmin on one of the many buses

It would have been wonderful to fly from Ecuador to Lake Titicaca and avoid the headache of slow bus travel, but my budget doesn’t have a lot of room for expensive flights when I want to do things like the Salt Flats tour and still have Australia and New Zealand in my future. I’ve been saving money in arguably not so healthy ways, like eating two free rolls at the hostel for breakfast instead of buying eggs or fruit, but skimping on food costs alone isn’t enough to cover the fun activities. So travel became the next best way to try to save money. And when you have months instead of weeks to travel, it’s hard to justify doing the quickest route for double the money. Thank god Jasmin and I were in the same boat here; it helped to have each other throughout this crazy process.

So here’s how I spent three days on the road.

Sunday night we left Baños with the goal of getting to Loja, a town in southern Ecuador from which we could get a direct bus over the border to Piura, Peru, and then a cheap domestic flight down to Titicaca. A bus company had a sign posted in the station about how to get to Loja from Baños by going through Riobamba, so we trusted them and boarded their bus. 2 hours later we arrived in Riobamba to find that all buses to Loja were fully booked until Tuesday. Hell no were we waiting till Tuesday. We heard a call for Cuenca, leaving immediately, and jumped on that bus instead; this was my backup option, since Cuenca was on the way to the border anyway. At 4 am we arrived in Cuenca and immediately booked tickets on a 5 am bus to Loja. Only an hour to kill in a bus terminal wasn’t too bad. At 9 am and three buses later we arrived in Loja.

Then it started to get painful. The 1:30 pm bus over the border was sold out, so we had to wait until 11:00 pm. We bought our tickets and beelined to an internet cafe to figure out if it was possible to catch the flight I was hoping to get from Piura to Arequipa, Peru the next day. The bus would get into Piura around 8:30 am, the flight was at 8. No good. We researched a few different options and ended up booking an overnight bus from Piura to Lima and a flight from Lima directly to Juliaca on Lake Titicaca. Arequipa wasn’t necessary anyway, we just wanted to get to Bolivia.

This probably sounds like a crazy way to travel, and maybe it is, but we had to cover a lot of distance and do it as cheaply as possible. The bus portions themselves weren’t the worst part though, it was the waiting. If everything had lined up nicer we would have been able to save a day, but the first bus from Piura to Lima was at 3:30 pm, and because of when that arrived the next day, we had to book a 7:00 pm flight from Lima to Juliaca. This meant a lot of time waiting in terminals.

Here was the schedule:

  • Sunday: 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm bus to Riobamba, 10:00 pm bus to Cuenca, sleep on bus
  • Monday: 4:00 am arrive Cuenca, 5:00 am – 9:00 am bus to Loja, wait in Loja till 11:00 pm, sleep on bus
  • Tuesday: 4:00 am get off bus to get Ecuador exit stamp, walk across to Peru, get entry stamp, back on bus, arrive Piura 8:30 am, wait in terminal until bus at 3:30 pm, dinner and sleep on bus
  • Wednesday: 8:30 am arrive in Lima, try to get standby on earlier flight to Juliaca, no luck, wait in airport till 7:00 pm flight, land in Juliaca 9:00 pm, get on minibus to Puno, arrive at hostel 10:30 pm, finally sleep in a bed
My view on Cruz del Sur

My view on Cruz del Sur

By doing it this way, we saved on both travel costs and accommodation, since we slept on the buses. Food and drink costs also went down since we just had a lot of snacks and didn’t go out at all. In the end, we saved around $400. The buses in Ecuador were not great, but Cruz del Sur in Peru was luxury travel. We had reclining seats with blankets and pillows, movies, dinner, and even a game of bingo. I also booked the first row on the top level so we had tons of leg room and a great view. But after these three days, you cannot imagine how happy we were to get to Lake Titicaca.

I have a few more bus rides in my future but nothing that will be this long – I’m trying to break them up as much as possible. (Except the 24 hour ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago, Chile. Unfortunately that one is unavoidable.) If I had more time and hadn’t already been to Peru I would have broken up this part more too, but I just wanted to get to Bolivia so this is how it worked out. Now that I’m in Bolivia it is all a memory, and it feels like a right of passage I had to endure as RTW traveler. To backpackers, flights are a luxury. We want to see as much as possible but don’t have the budget to do it in the ideal way, so we lose some time to travel like this. I like to think it builds character.

Adventuring and Freezing in Baños

The outdoorsy village of Baños was a very last minute addition. I knew I had to continue south through Ecuador – the goal was to cross into Peru, get a domestic flight down to Lake Titicaca, and cross into Bolivia – but while suffering on the long bus ride to get to Quito I thought maybe I should stop along the way to break up the trip. I perused the options in my guidebook and consulted with Jasmin, who was already planning on going to Baños from Quito. After reading the entire Ecuador chapter, I decided Baños sounded awesome, so Jasmin and I kept going together. (And kept going – we’ll be traveling together through La Paz, Bolivia. Gotta love new travel friends you meet on the road!)

Again, great decision. Ecuador continued to delight with Baños, another great addition to the journey. This small village is like a ski town in the summer; pretty, laid back, and full of outdoor activities. We even kept calling our hostel the lodge. Its wood architecture, outdoor bonfire, cheap bar, pool table, and beanbag chairs around the TV with 400 DVDs to choose from helped this impression, as did the constantly cold temperature. Ecuador finally gave me a break from the heat.

Activity day 1 we rented bikes in town ($5 for the day, I love Ecuador prices) and “mountain biked” the Waterfall Route. Mountain biked is in quotes because even though we were on mountain bikes and zooming downhill most of the time, the route was almost all on paved road next to cars. There were a few parts that went off the road, where cars had to go through tunnels bikes had to go around, but it wasn’t exactly as mountainous as I was hoping. It was still worth it though, we biked 24 km and stopped in the middle to see the Pailon del Diablo waterfall.

This waterfall was huge and fun to wander around. After paying a small entry fee, we were able to get close to the waterfall, even standing directly behind it at one point. We got soaked, but since it had been lightly raining all day anyway we weren’t phased.

At the end of our ride we found ourselves in the tiny town of San Francisco. It had no similarities whatsoever to the San Francisco I called home. Town is even an exaggeration, hamlet would be more appropriate. We didn’t see the bus stop we were supposed to find, but a helpful local woman flagged down a pickup truck to take us back up to Baños. Is it hitchhiking if you pay the guy? It’s more like an unofficial taxi. Ecuador’s version of Lyft?

Ecuadorians are insane drivers. Our Ecuadorian-Lyft driver didn’t just treat the lines separating lanes as guidelines, he flat out ignore them. We passed trucks around curves on mountain roads, or if we were the only car on the road he just drove on whatever part allowed him to go fastest. As we later found out with a taxi driver and a few buses, this is just how everyone drives in Ecuador. Even if you’re driving a 40 seat bus, just honk the horn as an acknowledgement that you’re coming and pass whoever whenever. We survived though, so I guess they know what they’re doing. Nuts.

When we got back we rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate in the “lodge” (hostel). That night we hibernated, putting on Hunger Games and settling into beanbag chairs. At first our hostelmates weren’t too receptive of our choice, but no more than 15 minutes in the entire hostel was watching. We ran out of chairs. The receptionist even made us all popcorn free of charge. There was something sort of awesome about getting a dozen 20-somethings to have a sporadic movie night. And did I mention this was a Friday night? Not like days really matter much to a bunch of backpackers in a tiny mountain town, but still.

Activity day 2 I was supposed to go whitewater rafting but it had rained so much overnight that the river was too high, so rafting was cancelled. Spur of the moment, I decided to go canyoning instead. The water was still really high for this; the first waterfall we were going to reppell down was short but steep so the higher water was very strong, increasing the difficultly of the reppell. Because of this it was optional, and most of the group kept walking to the next one. 6 guys and me decided to go for it. The guides all looked at me skeptically but I made it down fine; it was actually a great introduction to the day since it was short and got us all used to walking down backwards in a waterfall, not to mention being drenched. The rushing water was only a problem one more time…

After reppelling down a long waterfall, Franck and I were watching the rest of the group go from on a rock in the middle of the river. Suddenly he says, “Wow the water has almost stopped.” Sure enough it had slowed down to a trickle. Then it turned dark brown – it looked like molten chocolate cascading down. At this point we got a little worried about what was happening, and rightfully so. A minute later a gigantic tree branch came barreling over the falls towards us. Franck and I jumped off the rock, helped ashore by our canyoning companions, as a massive amount of water followed the branch. Luckily the girl who had been reppelling down the fall had gotten to safety just 30 seconds before the branch came down. Everyone was okay, so we just had to wait for the water to calm down a little before the rest of the group could come down.

The rest of the day was a mixture of pure fun and totally freezing. The whole trip was 6 cascades, with a mixture of short and long reppells down waterfalls, a zipline, and sliding down on our butts. All of that was just awesome. It was the waiting in between reppells that was painful; it was so cold that we were all dancing on the rocks trying avoid shivering. It took me two hot chocolates and a couple hours bundled up inside to recover a normal body temperature.

Saturday night out in Baños helped too. We went to The Leprechaun with a lot of other foreigners and a soundtrack that varied from old school hip hop to salsa. There were locals there too though; we ran into one of our canyoning guides who taught me how to salsa and merengue. The bars closed earlier than apparently everyone wanted them to, prompting many Ecuadorians to take to the streets singing. I don’t know what they were singing but they were all very enthusiastic.

Sunday we spent lounging, watching movies, and staying warm before our evening bus out of town. I probably could have stayed in Baños a lot longer. It’s one of those towns, like Minca, that if I hadn’t imposed a South America deadline on myself I would have just stayed in and hung out for a while.

Pleasantly Surprised in Quito

So I wound up in Ecuador. It was in the plan originally – it is on my itinerary page – but it had been cut for time once I decided to spend 5 weeks in Brazil instead of 3.

But nothing is final in a RTW trip, so it got put back in. I’ve gone through some of the logic behind this already, so I’ll just summarize: it’s hard to get from Colombia to Bolivia without spending an inordinate amount of money on an international flight, so I decided to travel slower and see more of South America on my way. This will cut down my time in Argentina but after spending 2 weeks in Rio I realized that 2 weeks is plenty of time to recharge, so instead of 4 weeks in Buenos Aires I think I only need 2. This gave me more time to play with.

So I started with Quito.

I was surprised by Quito in the best way. It’s beautiful. The architecture of the Old Town has been well preserved and/or restored, but its public bus system adds a modernity that brings it into this century. It is surrounded by rolling green mountains that rise up above the streets and, when seen from a viewpoint, continue on as far as you can see. Add in the most beautiful churches I’ve seen in South American and it honestly felt like I was in Europe.

Quito was the first time in a long time that I felt like I was a tourist in a traditional way, but again in a good way. We started by going to the main square, Plaza Grande, which is surrounded by Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace), the Cathedral, and Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace, now some shops and restaurants). We did the free tour of the Palacio del Gobierno and, even though it was in Spanish, we were very impressed.

For starters the palace is so pretty: whitewashed walls and a tiled roof, two courtyards with palm trees and fountains, and stately rooms decorated to look just like stately rooms in a presidential palace should look. The President initiated opening the doors of the palace to the people, and he put gifts from other nations on display for the tours. We had a newfound appreciation for the President after hearing this. I definitely recommend doing this tour to anyone visiting Quito.

After a lunch of traditional Ecuadorian food – absolutely delicious seco de chiva (which, combined with our calzones from the night before, gave us the impression that Ecuadorian food was so much better than Colombian or Brazilian; an impression we later realized was a bit too quick to judge) – we went to Centro Cultural Metropolitano. This free art center has rotating exhibits, and we were lucky to see an Ecuadorian artist Viteri. I wasn’t familiar with him but liked the exhibit. Plus it was great wandering the galleries with another art history major; Jasmin and I were able to discuss these pieces in a way we hadn’t in a long time.

Then we commenced the church portion of our tour of Quito. First with the Cathedral and then the Monasterio de San Francisco. I haven’t seen churches this ornately decorated since Europe. The monastery is the oldest church in Quito and it was definitely the highlight. We capped off this religious tour the next morning with the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which had the impression of being designed by exactly following the “how to build a Gothic basilica” guidebook. Which for me is fine, since I realized that I will always be wowed by the soaring heights of basilica interiors.

We wandered La Ronda, a narrow lane that has been revived as a home for restaurants, shops and galleries. It clearly comes alive at night, not in the middle of the afternoon, but the shops we did venture into were still tempting (especially the chocolate shop). We capped off our Quito tour with a trip up El Panecillo to La Virgen de Quito statue. The view overlooking Quito was on par with Monserrate in Bogota. Quito from above looked like a mixture between Bogota and Medellin – Bogota because it spread out below us larger than expected, and Medellin because it is in a valley surrounded by green mountains – but a more manageable scale than both. Well worth the trip up.

And of course we hit up the shopping kiosks. After purchasing a bracelet to add to my growing collection and my new favorite pair of fingerless alpaca gloves ($2!), we returned to the hostel to recharge before the night.

Since it was our only real night in Quito we went to La Mariscal for dinner. Nicknamed “gringolandia” by Lonely Planet, this is the Parque Lleras of Quito. Surrounded by neon signs for BBQ and burgers, we were instantly hounded by 2 for 1 happy hour deals. Our night out was shortlived, we were still recovering from our 30 hours of travel and knew we had Banos to look forward to, but even this short trip to La Mariscal felt like we got what it was about. I would stay in the Old Town again for sure.

We left Quito quickly to continue our move south through Ecuador, but we left with a great impression. I am definitely happy I added this stop back into my trip.

 

Medellin

Medellin. I have had a hard time writing this post, and I’m not entirely sure why. It could have to do with a few different factors: 1) I spent 6 days there, so there’s a lot to talk about; 2) my opinion on the city wavered, starting a little negative but improving toward the end; 3) I had two friends from San Francisco in town, and while it was awesome at the time, now at almost 3 months away from SF it does make me a little sad to think about; or 4) Medellin was my goodbye to Colombia, a country I thoroughly enjoyed, and to some extent it was also my goodbye to planned travel; I had no idea what trajectory I would take to get to Bolivia.

So having prefaced this post with all of that, I’ll try to summarize my feelings on the week as best I can.

Medellin is a metropolis. Probably the most modern city in Colombia, it has come a long way in recent years. It is loved by travelers and we are loved by it; people wanted to talk to us, take pictures with us, and welcome us to their city.

My initial impression was not positive. It was crowded, dirty, with main attractions running alongside shady areas. I witnessed fights being broken up by cops and thieves running en mass away from who knows what, all while touring the popular sites. Everything seemed further away than it initially looked on the map. It was still effing hot. Parque Lleras, the main place to go out, consisted of groups of foreigners trickling in together looking confused, eliciting the reaction: “A new hostel just got here.” Everyone wandered around looking for fun and found not much of anything. And to top it off, we were there during the Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), supposedly the biggest cultural event of the year, and we didn’t see it anywhere or feel any sort of excited energy.

Where was the amazing city I’d heard so much about? “Medellin is the best! You’ll love it!” “It’s my favorite city, I have to go back.” “Nightlife is unreal! Medellin is so much fun!”

Maybe this was the problem. I had heard so much hype about how amazing Medellin was that I was initially disappointed. So I took a step back, got out of town for a day, and resumed my exploration of the city with Andy (when he didn’t have work anymore) and Matt (when he was awake).

Then things started to improve. We had a great weekend that balanced tourist activities and general city wandering. Friday we did the free walking tour, which was informative without being drawn out. Saturday we took the Metrocable up to Parque Arvi; the view is truly worth it, and leaves a mixed impression of awe at the scale of the city with unsettling at the conditions that people are living in. It was entirely worth seeing. Plus the market at the park was a highlight; a great place to get gifts and local treats. That afternoon we spent an hour or two just enjoying a beer in a bamboo garden, catching up. Sunday we searched for a place to play tejo, unsuccessfully (I guess I will never get to try this game, sigh), and ended up watching a local soccer game before going to the Flower Festival parade. The parade was actually really enjoyable – we finally found the festival! We watched some of the silleteros walk by carrying their impressive flower displays on their backs, and we wandered the streets with other locals enjoying this big celebration. This was my last night, so Andy, Matt and I made dinner at the hostel and just hung out, something that was so comfortably fun for me with friends from home.

The weekend was also a big improvement for the nightlife. Thursday night happy hour at the Tres Cordilleras brewery gave us a chance to taste all their beers, ones with actual flavor like wheats and IPAs (something I probably appreciated more since I’d been drinking the local watery-flavored beer of Brazil and Colombia for weeks) and Friday night out around Parque Lleras was much more what we were expecting. The only downside was the nightly rain; it would’ve been much better if everyone didn’t have to run and hide in packed bars, we still didn’t feel like we got the true Parque Lleras experience.

By the end, I did enjoy Medellin. It took me a little while to warm up to it, but the city does have a lot to offer. It took just wandering through some new neighborhoods to get there, but that’s how I have been enjoying cities anyway. The center was full of stories and interesting locations but it didn’t seem livable. Getting outside of the center helped tone down the city.

As for having Andy and Matt around, I am so happy they came while I was there. It has been great to have had friends around for parts of this journey, and I hope it continues. But leaving them I knew that I didn’t have anyone joining me again until December, so it was a strange feeling to say goodbye. It felt a lot more final than goodbyes had before. It didn’t help that this coincided with a lot of events at home that are hard to miss – Outside Lands, a close friend’s bachelorette weekend, and prep for Burning Man. All at the 2 months of travel mark, where it’s no longer a vacation and now a life.

I’ve had more time to process this and move on from Medellin and, as evidenced by a recent post from Quito, I am ok with it. Yes I am sad to miss these events, but I know that what I’m doing is right for me right now, and that these friends will be in my life for so much longer that a year away won’t make any difference in the end.

And lasty, leaving Medellin I entered a period of uncertainty: no plans to meet up with people, no planes or hostels booked, and an itinerary that was changing every day. I didn’t know what country I would be in by the end of the week, let alone what city or how I was getting there. That may sound kind of crazy, but it actually feels not just exciting, but like it’s about damn time I just wing it. For anyone who’s been reading along, this probably sounds a little bit like when I left Rio, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that this feels bigger. But it also means that Medellin has become another marker along this year of adventure, and I’m sure it’s not the last.

A Day Trip to Guatapé, the Most Adorable Town in Colombia

The trip out to El Peñon and Guatapé from Medellin is so easy to do on public transportation that there really is no excuse not to go, even for just a day trip. It takes about 2 hours (and COP 12,000) by bus from Medellin’s Terminal del Norte, and this bus will actually drop you off at the gas station at the bottom of El Peñon – a helpful tip that was not mentioned in my guidebook. From here it’s a short uphill walk to the entrance, a COP 10,000 ticket, and you’re ready to climb 740 stairs to the top of a gigantic granite rock (the sign says 659 but to the tippy top of the tower is actually 740).

The walk went surprisingly quickly, and the entire time I was just impressed with the feat of engineering that is these steps. They’re fit into a crevice in the rock, winding back and forth as you ascend. The descent is an additional staircase further inside the rock.

The view at the top is beautiful: green mountains and a network of lakes stretch before you for miles. Colombia is stunning. Just a few days ago I was on the beach, and now I was staring at rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Amazing. After a leg-shaking-inducing trek back down, it’s easy to catch an intensely colorful little bus straight into Guatapé (only COP 3,000).

Guatapé has to be the cutest town in the world. The streets are lined with colorful houses decorated with patterns and balconies, accompanied by decorative streetlamps. Its cathedral has so much character on the outside and a beautiful wood interior accented with stained glass. Even the tuk-tuks are adorable.

And what is that delectable aroma wafting through the air? Guatapé may also be the sweetest smelling town; I wanted to immediately consume whatever was creating that smell, but had no idea what it was. If anyone out there knows, please tell me.

I can see how people want to spend more time here – the lake offers a range of activities from jetskis to ziplines to multi-tiered boats with music and chairs and tables; I can only assume those are accompanied by booze. I could have also easily just sat at an outdoor table in the main square and enjoyed an afternoon of micheladas. But for me this was only a day trip, I had friends and Thursday night in Medellin to get back to. It was well worth making the trip out though just to see this charming town and lake-filled mountainous landscape.

 

That Time I Walked into Ecuador

I finally experienced long bus travel in South America – from Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador. It had its highs and lows, and is not my favorite way of traveling by any means, but given the cost efficiency and frequency of bus options it will continue to be a means of transport for me. Hopefully though future trips will be a little more like the buses everyone raves about with smooth rides and luxury accommodations.

It started out nice enough. Jasmin and I got to the Terminal del Sur in Medellin about an hour early for the 2:30 bus. Then we found out that bus was full, and we had to get on the 5:30 one. Well shit. After a little wandering we settled into the waiting room around 2:25 to get comfortable for our three hour wait. We could see the 2:30 bus outside getting ready to go; I turned to Jasmin and said, “I keep holding out hope that they’ll have two empty seats and someone will come get us and tell us to get on the bus.” I kid you not, two minutes later that exact thing happened. What luck! The bus had two seats and the driver saw us waiting, so he checked our tickets and told us to just get on. Phew! A few minutes later we were on our way to Ipiales.

Ipiales, Colombia is on the border with Ecuador, which is a 20 hour bus ride from Medellin. The ride wasn’t as bad as it sounds really: the scenery alone is reason enough to travel by bus, it was beautiful; they showed movies (in Spanish, but I got what was going on); we stopped quickly for dinner/a bathroom break; the temperature was ok as long as you were prepared for it, it got a little cold overnight; and the seats reclined enough for a solid 11 hours of sleep (thanks to Melatonin and ear plugs). There was an unfortunate stretch in the middle of the night when we stopped in Popayan and the lights were on for a while, and then the road get incredibly bumpy, but I managed to sleep through most of it.

Around 11 am we arrived in Ipiales. We joined forces with three other travelers to get across the border. First we took a shared bus to immigration for our exit stamp. Then we walked down the road into Tulcan, Ecuador. As if taking a taxi to get into Colombia wasn’t strange enough, now I have literally walked out of one country and into a new one. Within minutes we said bye to Colombia and were at immigration getting our entry stamps for Ecuador.

We decided to change our money here with one of the very legitimate cambio vendors (sense the sarcasm). Ecuador uses US currency, except that their coins are a mixture of US coins and Ecuadorian versions of US coins. After being away from US dollars for 7 weeks it was strange to see them again, especially in a border town in Ecuador. Being the only American, it was my duty to make sure the bills we were given were real. They were, and after we haggled an exchange rate we took a 75 cent shared ride to the bus terminal to get on another bus to Quito.

It’s 5 hours from Tulcan to Quito, and it cost $5. I did not mistype that – it actually cost $5 to go 5 hours. The general rule of thumb with bus travel in Ecuador is $1 per 1 hour. We were all happy at our new-found wealthiness in Ecuador. Of course there is a reason for this; the buses left a lot to be desired, and they frequently stopped for basically an entire market to come on selling a variety of snacks and drinks. Still though, it wouldn’t have been too bad if it wasn’t for the traffic.

All we were told was that we had been diverted from the main highway into Quito and it would take an extra hour. That hour passed slowly with bumper to bumper traffic barely moving, and then when we thought we were finally almost there we were diverted again, making a U-turn to find a new way into the city. You can imagine everyone’s annoyance at this point. But then the driver turned on the radio for everyone to hear: there had been a 5.1 magnitude earthquake about an hour outside of Quito. 2 people had died in a mine and others in were critical condition.

We felt awful. Now we were concerned about the state of the city, if there would be aftershocks, had any new information on the injured been released. Suddenly we realized that the entire city was in a bad state and our prolonged bus ride was just a minor side issue.

We arrived in Quito around 8:30 at night in the South Terminal; coming from the north, we had driven around the entire city to enter at the south, the only place roads were open to get in. Starving and exhausted after 30 hours of travel, we took a cab to the first hostel listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook and luckily got a room. The receptionist said they were still expecting aftershocks but those never came. (Later addition: They did in fact come the next day, but nothing too major. After being in Quito everything was okay again, it was just the unfortunate news from the mines). They recommended a place for a quick dinner, where we gladly scarfed down a delicious calzone and a beer. It wasn’t hard to fall asleep that night.

My first bus experience was honestly not as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. I am looking into not leaving Ecuador by land but it will come down to timing and price. Honestly this portion of my trip is still pretty up in the air. I just know that at some point next week I’ll be on buses again in Peru and Bolivia.

But for now, I have made it to Ecuador! After the great experiences I had in Colombia and Brazil, I am curious to see if South America continues to deliver in this next country.

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Walking into Ecuador

This Life I Chose

A friend recently visited me on this journey and, in his habit of asking the questions that really make me think about what I’m doing, he asked when the moment was that it really hit me that this is my life. I hesitated at first, unsure of whether or not I’d really had that moment. I felt like it just crept up on me, that what started as a vacation feeling transitioned into a life feeling without me really noticing it.

But that’s not entirely accurate. It happened in the Amazon. Yes I know I keep talking about the Amazon, but that week meant a lot to me. And this is part of the reason why.

That week in the Amazon marked a month since I left home and two months since I left work. Those are big changes and a decent amount of time for them to sink in. I wasn’t in a big city around a bunch of friends and I wasn’t so fresh into traveling that it all still felt like vacation. I was actually out in the middle of South America experiencing something I had previously only dreamed of, something that was a big part of this trip idea.

And I loved it. I was undeniably happy. Every day was that adventure I was hoping it would be. And at that point my life became my trip.

From then on I’ve only felt more sure that this is right, that this is what I should be doing. I have finally left the daily concerns of life before behind and my entire focus is on now or the now coming up; flights, bus schedules, hostels, activities, and locations.

I’m over halfway through South America: 7 and a half weeks down, 6 and a half weeks to go. It’s hard to imagine how I’ll fit everything I still want to do into this timeframe, and even harder to imagine the following 6 months in Australasia and Asia, but at least I can be sure that I will figure it all out when the time comes. And that every day I will continue to enjoy this life I’ve embarked on more than I could hope to describe in a post.