Colombia: Popayan, Salento + Valle de Cocora

For months we’d been hearing from other travelers about how much Colombia has to offer. We took notes, did some research, and were eager to explore this lesser-traveled destination in South America because guess what? Colombia ain’t what it used to be!

Las Lajas Sanctuary 

Most towns located at a border crossing leave much to be desired and are simply locations one strives to move through as quickly as possible. However, Colombia boasts one the the most exquisite churches I’ve ever seen just a handful of miles across the border from Ecuador.

Las Lajas Sanctuary was built in Gothic Revival style between 1916 – 1949. The church was inspired by a miracle said to have taken place in the canyon 150 years earlier. It rises 330 feet high from the bottom of the canyon and is connected to the opposite side of the canyon by a 160 foot tall bridge. The rock face that the church is connected to is also the wall inside the sanctuary. It’s truly extraordinary! This iconic church brings visitors from near and far. If you’re ever in the area you simply must visit Las Lajas.


This picture really shows off the extraordinary engineering and design. Can you see the river running down below? Exceptional!

Stock Photo.1

Popayan: The White City

When we said goodbye to Liz and Alex at the Llulu Llama Hostel in Isinlivi, Ecuador, we knew we’d meet up with them a few days later in Popayan, Colombia. It was fun reuniting with them and we spent a few days exploring the “white city” together.

One of the first things we noticed in Colombia was how nice the people were. Everyday, common exchanges with vendors or restaurant staff suddenly turned into a delightfully effusive verbal dance with multiple pleasantries exchanged. We quickly learned that it’s actually bad manners to just say a solitary “hello”.  A more extensive flowery greeting is appropriate and actually expected.

While we’ve indulged in many cups of sweet, juicy mangoes sold on street corners throughout South America, it was the vendors in Popayan who added a twist to this delicious fruit: they squeezed fresh lime juice and sprinkled salt over the mangoes, making this natural snack a really zippy treat. Yum!


Salento: Coffee Region

Embarking on a seven hour bus journey with friends sitting next to you is definitely the way to go! Everyone was on their best behavior, no one got (really) grouchy despite being crammed into the back of the bus, and there were plenty of snacks and stories to go around.


The coffee region of Colombia is simply beautiful. Green rolling hills, windy country roads and lush vegetation make this a visually pleasing and relaxing location. Salento is an adorable colonial town with brightly painted buildings set against a hilly green backdrop. Horses and their riders amble down the cobblestone streets, gentlemen walk around wearing sombreros and ponchos, and fresh coffee can be had on every corner.


Don Elias Coffee Plantation

One hot afternoon we walked for 45 minutes down a very long and dusty road to visit Don Elias, a small, family-run, organic coffee plantation. Don Elias’s grandson gave us a tour and he shared the inside scoop on his grandfather. Apparently, Don Elias used to drink up to 20 cups of coffee every day, but once his doctor intervened he dropped it down to “only” seven cups a day. Can you imagine?

We learned quite a bit that day. They use companion cropping to deter pests and encourage pollination. For example, banana trees and pineapple plants are interwoven among the coffee plants. The harvesting is very labor intensive as it’s all done by hand. We observed how they process the beans on old-school machinery. The tour ended with a strong cup of piping hot black coffee, just the way Harry likes it. We also got to meet the rugged Don Elias who, in his white sombrero, sure looked like a coffee cowboy to me.

Instead of walking back into town, we scrunched our hot-and-sweaty bodies into the back of an old U.S. army jeep and bounced our way on the dirt road back to the hostel. Always an adventure!


Valle de Cocora: Home of the Wax Palms

One day we hiked in the Valle de Cocora, a protected area not far from Salento. We started the trek in a lush valley, walking through pastures where happy cows lazily grazed. We crossed a river several times using rickety bridges that caused us to cheer each time we all made it to the other side.

As we hiked up and out of the cloud forest we finally saw what we were looking for: the Wax Palm, Colombia’s national tree. Its long and slender trunk can grow up to almost 200 feet. The palms created a dramatic sight against the blue sky. We spent time laying on our backs, staring up at the pretty fronds outlined by the bright sun.


When we finished hiking we grabbed a ride back on one of Salento’s unique “Willys MB” jeeps. Originally used in the U.S. Army, a bunch of jeeps were brought to Colombia after WWII. They are well-maintained and serve as the perfect vehicle to navigate some of the unpaved roads in the region. As there were only a handful of seats, Liz, Alex and I stood up on the back bumper and hung on for the 30 minute ride back to Salento. Yahoo!


Tejo: A Game With Explosives

While futbol is the most popular sport in Colombia (duh!), its most traditional sport is called Tejo. This highly unusual game involves launching heavy, rock-like projectiles at a target surrounded by explosives. We had a great time playing this crazy game while we were in Salento. To see what tejo is all about, check out Anthony Bourdain’s short video. I think I know the perfect family-friendly activity to play at our next annual July 4th shindig in Michigan….


Coming up next: Medellin and Guatapé

It’s Colombia (Not Columbia!)

It’s no secret how much we loved our six weeks in Colombia. Here are a few facts, observations and rumors about this fantastic country that make it such a special place.

  • While many people still think that Colombia is too dangerous to visit, the truth is that remarkable strides have been made over the past 10 years to reduce crime and increase security. As a result, growth in tourism has been on the fast track. By some estimates, tourism is growing 12% per year, and it’s predicted that by 2023 Colombia is expected to receive 15 million tourists. Join the movement, buy your ticket today and prepare to fall in love with Colombia!


  • Yes, it’s true. Despite being “discovered” by Christoper Columbus, the country of Colombia spells its name differently than the magnificent Columbia River, Columbia Sportswear and all things “Columbia” that you’ll find across the United States. The fine citizens of Colombia have had enough with everyone misspelling their name, so a year ago a digital-media executive helped create the “It’s Colombia, not Columbia” marketing campaign. The campaign has picked up speed and now tens of thousands of Colombians are alert and ready to correct anyone on social media who gets it wrong. #itscolombianotcolumbia

Colombia keep calm red

  • We have found Colombians to be incredibly friendly. Along with Argentinians, they rank among the nicest people we’ve come across in South America. Colombians are lively and full of laughter. They love loud music and dancing. According to the Barometer of Happiness and Hope report, Colombia was the happiest country in the world in 2013 and 2014 (source: Colombia Reports). The culture of happiness here is remarkable given their violent and contentious not-so distant past.

Cartagena Fruit Woman

  • Colombia has been at war with itself for 50 years, one of the longest running civil wars in the world. There are several main players, including the drug cartels, right-winged paramilitaries, leftist paramilitary groups like FARC, and the government army. Over five million people, mostly from the countryside, have been displaced. Recent peace talks in Havana have led to a tentative treaty that will be voted on by the people in March. As you can imagine, this is a very complicated and emotional issue for Colombians. (photo credit:

Colombia peace talk

  • On a lighter note, Colombians like to drink their coffee “tinto” (dark) and they buy it from vendors on the street corners, no frills attached. The Juan Valdez coffee shops that can be found in big cities cater to all the gringos looking for a Starbucks experience while in South America.


  • We’ve noticed more people of all ages, grandmas included, wearing national team futbol jerseys in Colombia than in any other country that we’ve visited in South America. Colombia qualified for the 2014 World Cup for the first time in 16 years and they surprised the world by making it to the quarterfinals. They eventually lost to Brazil, the host country, but they returned home heroes. The yellow, blue and red jerseys can be seen far and wide and represent the passion and pride Colombians feel for their country.

Colombia soccer team

  • With mountains, jungles, coffee and cacao farms, deserts, modern cities and small pueblos, Colombia has it all. Sitting on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the country boasts over 300 beaches. Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world with 340 different types of ecosystems. There are 58 National Parks here, which is the same number as the US.

Colombia, not Columbia2

  • There are only two seasons in Colombia: winter (the rainy season), and summer (the dry season). With that said, weather patterns are predictable and you can basically choose which climate you want to live in, year-round. Imagine having the same weather, month after month. Love the intense heat, relentless humidity and beautiful beaches? You should live in and around Cartagena on the Caribbean. Would you rather live in the mountains at 8,000 feet and wear a jacket as soon as the sun goes down at 6:00 every day? Move to Bogota. Or how about Medellin, where the days are warm and the nights cool. You pick.


  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize winner, was from Colombia. I felt so lucky when I came across a used copy of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” at my hostel. I had the absolute pleasure of reading it while spending time in northern Colombia, the setting of this wonderful book.

100 Years of Solitude

  • There are motorbikes all over the crowded streets of Colombia, from big cities to little villages. It’s common to see drivers carrying an extra helmet in the crook of their arm because more often than not, they will pick up someone and serve as their taxi. In northern Colombia the only taxis available were motorbikes. When my friends and I wanted to go somewhere, a flock of drivers would show up, one for each of us. We’d put our backpacks on the handlebars and jump on behind the young driver (always a young driver!). This was my favorite mode of transportation in all of South America.



  • Colombia is ranked number six in world (behind the USA, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Spain) for cosmetic surgery. Social pressures coupled with family support and affordable procedures make surgeries extremely popular here. Rumor has it that in Medellin there is even a free cosmetic surgery program in the city’s poorest neighborhood. How about that? The medical students practice their skills while the people “benefit” from getting bigger boobs and butts. Going shopping? Don’t forget to buy your padded undies to make your bootie bigger!

Big Butts

  • While futbol is the most popular sport in Colombia (duh!), its most traditional sport is called Tejo. This highly unusual game involves launching heavy, rock-like projectiles at a target surrounded by explosives. We had a great time playing this crazy game with our friends Liz and Alex while we were in Solento. To see what tejo is all about, check out Anthony Bourdain’s short video. I think I know the perfect family-friendly activity to play at our next annual July 4th shindig in Michigan….


Well, have I convinced you? When are YOU coming to visit?

10 Months With My Backpack: A Look Inside

I’ll be honest. While I’ve definitely enjoyed meeting other travelers in South America, sometimes I’m more interested in the contents of their backpack than I am in hearing about the guy who snored too loudly in their hostel the night before.

When you’re on the road, your backpack is your life. It’s your home on-your-back, turtle style. It’s the one go-to place where you keep all your things. The contents of your pack say a lot about what you value and how much you need on a very basic level. I read a lot of travel blogs, and I always find myself checking out the author’s “Items In My Pack” page. It’s interesting to me what others deem as necessary. What might be a luxury item for some is a must-have for others. Also, as a very organized and systematic person, I’m intrigued how other people function within the confines of their packs.

Harry and I have pretty small backpacks. It was our goal to travel light and we’ve done just that. I have had a lot of people ask how our stuff is holding out (pretty good for the most part) and whether or not we’re totally sick of wearing the same clothes over and over (yes!). And, hey — I’ll also add that I’m totally sick of seeing Harry wear the same clothes over and over again, too. Ten months will do that to you. Harry, of course, could care less.

Both of our backpacks weigh less than 24 pounds on any given day.


Last week we were on a bus trip with our NZ friends Liz and Alex. Before too long the conversation turned to the contents of our backpacks. Alex asked Harry what was inside his pack, so Harry listed off the items without too much thought. Liz and I had already extensively compared notes so it was interesting listening to the guys share their travel secrets with each other. This “how well do you know the contents of your pack” game prompted me to create a summary of my own to share with anyone who might be interested.


I purchased a Gregory 42 liter pack for this trip. Gregory makes backpacks especially designed for the female body and I’m all about supporting a business that values making excellent equipment just for women. It’s a small pack and for the most part it’s been great. However, with that said, I do plan on sending them a meaty review along with my thoughts on how they can make it even better. Who knows, maybe they’ll offer me a job. Ha! However, it’s literally filled to capacity so I really have to be systematic and somewhat forceful when I pack up or things just won’t fit.

Here’s the #1 reason why I love this backpack: it’s got a full-body zipper so you can access the inside like a suitcase in addition to accessing it from the top like a normal backpack. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than having to reach waaaaay down into your pack to dig something out. I think this full-body zipper is a brilliant feature.
Clothes and Shoes
Not knowing what our exact travel plans were made packing pretty tricky. We knew we’d be spending time in the mountains, in cities and on the beach, so we did our best to choose what we thought we’d need on a very basic level. We did a pretty good job for the most part although at this point I’m ready for some different clothes!
  • 1 pair of quick-dry REI travel pants
  • 1 pair of zip-to-shorts pants (purchased in Argentina)
  • 1 pair of jeans (purchased in Peru)
  • 1 pair of leggings
  • 1 belt
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 3 skirts (probably 1 too many)
  • 2 dresses
  • 3 nicer tank tops
  • 2 sporty tank tops
  • 1 cardigan
  • 1 long-sleeve Nike quick-dry shirt (I wish I also had a long-sleeve cotton shirt)
  • 5 tee shirts (I threw 2 away when they got holes and purchased 3 cheap ones in Peru that aren’t coming home with me. I also wish I had packed some cuter tees)
  • 1 fleece jacket
  • 1 lightweight down jacket (this baby is worth its weight in gold! I literally wore it everyday for months on end)
  • 1 sweater, scarf and hat (purchased in Bolivia)
  • 1 rain coat
  • 2 sports bras
  • 2 bras
  • 6 pairs of underwear (I started with 8 but lost 2 along the way)
  • 3 pairs of socks (I started with 4 but lost 1 along the way. 4/6 have holes in them)
  • 2 pairs of hiking socks
  • 1 scarf/pashmina
  • 1 bikini
  • 1 baseball hat for sun protection (purchased in Colombia)
  • 1 pair tennis shoes
  • 1 pair hiking shoes
  • 1 pair Birkenstocks
  • 1 pair flip flops
Technology and Gadgets
  • Camera: Canon PowerShot. It fits right into my pocket, it takes pretty great pics, it holds up well when I drop it and it’s got some fun settings to play with. I think bigger cameras draw unwanted attention and make you a target.
  • Camera charger, cable, case, small tripod and spare battery
  • 1 extra memory card
  • 2 thumb drives to store photos
  • iPhone 4  (This was a last minute addition given to us by Harry’s dad, and we’re so glad we have it. Harry carries the laptop with him)
  • iPhone charger
  • Watch with alarm function
  • Sunglasses and case
  • Head lamp and extra batteries
  • 1st aid kit (small with just a few basics)
  • Money belt
  • Sink plug to use when washing clothes
  • Packing cubes to organize clothes and stuff
  • 3 reusable nylon bags that fold up tiny when not in use (for laundry and groceries, etc)
  • 1 quick-dry towel
  • 1 sleeping bag liner
  • 1 spork
  • 1 knife (“acquired” in Patagonia)
  • 1 vegetable peeler (purchased in Buenos Aires)


  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Soap
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss
  • Comb
  • Lotion
  • Sun screen
  • Q-tips
  • Eye drops
  • Nail clippers and file
  • Razor and blades (shared with Harry)
  • Scissors
  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Queeze-free wrist bands (for motion sickness)
  • 10 Burt’s Bees lip balm (don’t laugh, we’re almost out!)
  • Meds, pills
  • 2 pairs of earrings
  • 2 necklaces (one purchased in Ecuador)

Toiletries before:

Packing Up

Toiletries after:

Packing Up.2

My Top 5 Highly Recommended Things To Make Travel Life Fun And Easy: 

  1. Backpack with a full-body zipper (as mentioned above) so you can access the inside like a suitcase in addition to accessing it from the top like a normal backpack. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than having to reach waaaaay down into your pack to dig something out. I think this full-body zipper is a brilliant feature.
  2. Packing cubes in different colors. When you pack, everything has its special place, and when you take something out, put it right back where you got it. When you want your leggings you’ll know to find them in the green packing cube. Need socks? Look in the purple cube. No more digging around. Be organized, people! Impress your friends. I love the Eagle Creek packing cubes. They are super lightweight and very durable and they come in fun colors.
  3. Head Lamp. Being a courteous roommate means using this instead of turning on the overhead light. It’s good for reading in bed, finding the bathroom in the middle of the night, exploring caves and hiking up to Machu Picchu in the dark.
  4. Spork. We each have one and we use them all the time. They’re really lightweight and durable with a built-in fork, spoon and knife. Plus, they’re super cute with a fun name.
  5. Sink PlugWe’ve used this many times to wash clothes in hostel sinks. It’s super lightweight and inexpensive. I use shampoo or soap for doing laundry instead of detergent to keep things simple.

What Else? 

Harry also carries a small red backpack with him where ever he goes, and I carry a messenger bag. We also have a small black duffle bag that we schlep around as well; it’s used as our carry-on bag for buses and planes. We use it for food, water, Harry’s Crocs, my fleece, a book and other miscellaneous things. It’s falling apart at the seams (literally! I’ve had to stitch it up in three different places) but it works. I thought about replacing it, but I don’t want anything too flashy because it could attract unwanted attention. Nothing screams “tourist” more than a brightly colored bag from Bolivia.

So there you go. My advice to you? Pack light!