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!

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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

Adios Peru, Hola Ecuador!

I was afraid to leave Huaraz. My guts were in an awful state and spending eight hours on the bus to Lima sounded so horrible that I cried. I was so disappointed because I assumed that after five days of being sick I would feel better, but that wasn’t the case… I was actually feeling worse. Wanting to be brave, although I wasn’t really thinking straight, I agreed to get on the bus.

Luckily I made it to Lima without incident but I was super dehydrated and not exactly feeling like a million dollars. The next day Harry brought me to the hospital and I was hooked up to an IV. Thankfully my blood work came back negative. The doc believed that whatever I had was probably my Arequipa-born Evil Gut Monsters throwing a party. I was given a prescription and sent home with orders to drink a lot of water and eat soup when I was hungry. Of course my Peruvian doctor wanted me to eat SOUP! When don’t Peruvians eat soup?

He also told Harry to give me a massage twice a day, buy me lots of flowers and carry my backpack for an entire week. Well, maybe he didn’t exactly say all of that, I might have misunderstood some of his Spanish.

All in all, my trip to the hospital and pharmacy cost $260. Here’s a picture so you can see how cute and pathetic I was. My doc was pretty cute too, but Harry didn’t take a picture of him.


Lima: Round II

Since we’d already spent a week in Lima in early July, we really didn’t do much this time around since our goal was simply for me to get better. Of course we visited Kennedy “cat” Park again, and oh yeah, one afternoon I went to a dentist. I was very medically high-maintenance during this visit to Lima. I thought I’d cracked a filling a few months ago and wanted to get it looked at once and for all. Apparently my sensitive tooth was simply a product of my imagination, which is way better than needing a root canal. The dentist examined me and took a whole bunch of x-rays, and the entire visit cost $70.


Family Friend

One of Harry’s childhood neighbors lives in Lima with his Peruvian wife and their two adorable daughters. We had lunch with Brian one day at Maido, an award-winning Sushi restaurant. The guys ate some incredibly creative sushi while I sipped my tea. Later that day Harry and I visited Brian and his girls at their home. It was really fun to connect with him and to hear about his life in Lima.

Heading North to Ecuador. Slowly.  

We assumed that we would just fly from Lima into Ecuador, but once we learned that each ticket would cost $500, we quickly went to plan B. We had already taken a bus from Lima to Trujillo on the north coast of Peru, and we didn’t want to retrace our steps. Instead we spent a third of the price and bought plane tickets to Piura in northern Peru and then a cheap bus ticket to Mancora. Our flight was only 90 minutes and it felt so decadent, almost like eating an enormous piece of chocolate cake for no special reason. After the flight we could barely climb on board the hot bus to take us north to the beach. Three long hours later we found ourselves on the Pacific Ocean in the little surfer town called Mancora.

Mancora Needs a Makeover 

People who like to surf and party love this beach town, but to us it felt like it had seen better days. The Pan-American Highway serves as Mancora’s main street with buses, tuk-tuks and motorcycles zipping along all day. The landscape was hot and dry and the beach wasn’t that clean. Maybe it was because we were just ready to get to Ecuador, but we didn’t find any magic in Mancora. Luckily our hostel was an oasis of sorts with hammocks and a pretty garden.

On another note, three blog-worthy things happened in Mancora. Firstly, Harry was offered cocaine on the beach. He said no. Secondly, I treated myself to a haircut. My hair was washed in a bowl of cold water, it was combed out and the beautician made five snips in a straight line across the back with her scissors. The whole process lasted six minutes and cost me $4. Thirdly, I had an absolutely delicious vegetarian “menu of the day”; you can read about it here.


Crossing the Border into Ecuador 

After our two night pit stop in Mancora we were ready to head north…. all the way north into Ecuador. We had been in Peru for almost three months and it was time to experience a new country.

We had some trouble buying our bus tickets to get out of town, or at least we thought we had some trouble. Really, we were just suspicious and paranoid that the tickets we bought were bogus. After we interrogated our ticket sellers several times Harry convinced me that everything would be OK. It turns out that I am way more skeptical than Harry is, and he’s way more trusting than I am. We actually balance each other out. We loaded our packs onto the roof of a mini van, hoping we weren’t being scammed. Ninety minutes later we reached an actual bus station. After we moved our stuff onto a “real” bus, we both breathed a big sigh of relief and hunkered down for the six hour ride across the border into Ecuador. We were on our way to Guayaquil for a quick stop before transferring to the lovely town of Cuenca.

IMG_1784Hola, Ecuador!

Peru: Lake Titicaca

We were done travelling around Bolivia and couldn’t wait to cross the border into Peru. The only problem was that we were stuck in Bolivia at Lake Titicaca. The situation was that Peruvian miners were on strike (again!) and the border crossing was closed (again!). The miners created a blockade with boulders on the road to prevent vehicles from passing.

With our bus tickets in hand we were forced to spend another day in Bolivia, along with everyone else trying to leave. Typical of South America, it was impossible to find out exactly what was going on. There were a lot of stressed out backpackers but since we had time on our side, we pretty much just rolled with it.

Luckily we only had to wait one additional day. When we finally boarded the bus we all crossed our fingers and hoped that we would actually make it through the crossing. The big rocks and boulders lining the sides of the road near immigration were blatant visual reminders of the contention at the border the day before.

When we finally got our passports stamped into Peru, we both let out a deep sigh of relief and I did a happy dance. Bolivia was interesting and definitely exceeded our expectations, but the country was also hard and edgy and we were ready to move on. Hola, Peru!



Four hours later our bus pulled into Puno, the gateway city to Lake Titicaca. We checked into our hotel and booked a boat tour for the next day to explore the Uros Floating Islands in the lake.

When I was in 4th or 5th grade I loved reading “National Geographic for Kids” each month (thanks, Grandma Connolly!). I remember seeing photos of Peruvian kids and their families living on floating islands and at the time it blew my ten year-old mind. I’ve carried this memory with me for a long time and couldn’t wait to visit the islands in person. Despite its reputation for being very touristy, it felt important for us to experience this unusual and historical location.

Uros Floating Islands

Morning came way too soon. Wearing all of our warm clothes layered over tee shirts we hopped into our tour van at 5:00 AM. We drove down to the docks and boarded our boat as the sun rose over the lake. The cluster of islands looked very tranquil off in the distance.


The Uros are a Pre-Incan people living on a cluster of floating Islands in Lake Titicaca located only 5K from Puno. Originally created as a safe heaven to escape the brutal Incas, today the community of islands are maintained to educate the world about their unusual and highly resourceful habitat.

Made from reeds growing in the lake, the islands are continually decomposing. Every three months or so the rotting reeds need to be reinforced or replaced. It’s a constant effort to maintain the structure of the islands. The base of the islands are comprised of dense layers of mud and organic material, which are then anchored to the bottom of the lake. Fascinating! Walking on the islands felt like walking on a giant waterbed.


The reeds are also used as tea, medicine and toothpaste. We all chomped on reeds for breakfast.


It was more than a little disheartening to see the little kids “working” the tourists. This four-year old girl was trying to get Harry to buy a piece of candy that another visitor had just given her.


Yes, visiting the Uros Islands was a very touristy thing to do. But we chose to look at the experience as a lesson in perseverance, survival and creative thinking. ‘Living Museums’ are definitely a colorful way to learn about an important slice of history.

Taquile Island

After the Uros Islands we took a boat ride for a few hours on beautiful Lake Titicaca to another island called Taquile. We hiked in the high altitude from one end to the other with our guide who taught us about the island’s unique way of life. We ate an authentic lunch of rice and trout at 13,000 feet.

Taquile is a “real” working island with 2,000 inhabitants. The land is parceled out to maximize usable space and crops are rotated annually. The island has been practicing sustainable agriculture long before it was ever a buzz phrase. We were impressed with how the community seemingly worked together to maximize the efficiency of the land. Survival fosters creativity and resourcefulness, indeed.


Onward to Cusco

Our first few days in Peru were fantastic! I noticed right away that the locals seemed happy and I loved hearing laughter on the streets. Lake Titicaca was incredible and we were happy to have experienced its magic on both the Bolivian and Peruvian sides. Next up: Cusco and the Sacred Valley.