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: Arequipa + Colca Canyon

Say what?! We have to take a 10 hour night bus south from Cusco to Arequipa?

Bus to Arequipa 2Bus to Arequipa 3

I’m pleased to report that despite waking up with a thin coating of ice on the inside of the windows (no wonder I was so cold all night!), the trip went pretty smoothly. For me, that is. Harry, on the other hand, dealt with an irritable gut for most of the way. Luckily he made it without incident (can you imagine the horror?).

Arequipa: The White City

We were looking forward to settling down in Arequipa for almost three weeks. While we loved our stay in sweet Cusco, it was time to get away from the hoards of tourists and lose ourselves in a city for a while. We were ready to dump out our backpacks and call Arequipa home.

A city in southern Peru, Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes that dominate its landscape. El Misti, the largest one, sits right on the edge of town, treeless and brown with a little snow frosting on top. Except for December and January, it rarely rains here as evidenced by the dry, barren landscape surrounding the area. Arequipa boasts the nickname “white city” because many of the buildings were built from sillar, a white volcanic stone. Truth be told, we thought the buildings were actually more like a dingy gray than white. There were also a freakish number of pigeons in the main plaza and we were surprised and a little grossed out by the number of parents who tried to get them to land on the heads of their children.

We stayed at a B+B this time around and the owner and his staff became like family. They took good care of us and while they spoke English, we were encouraged to speak Spanish as much as possible. Arequipenos are really proud of their city and consider it to be the best place in all of Peru. We had many great conversations about life around the world.

Fun fact: in Arequipa, lunch is the biggest meal of the day and it always starts out with a bowl of soup…. and there is actually a specific soup schedule that all restaurants and households follow. On Mondays you’ll eat caldo blanco, on Tuesdays you’ll eat menestron, and so on. It’s a tradition they’re very proud of. Soup’s on!


Evil Peruvian Gut Monsters

It finally happened. We got sick, really, really sick. For four days we were fighting over the bathroom. We’re pretty sure the lettuce we ate was the culprit. Whatever it was, it was bad. Really, really bad. Rest assured we don’t have any pictures of that dark and depressing time.

World Cup + Copa Cup 

To say that soccer in South America is a big deal would be the understatement of the year. The Copa Cup, a tournament between the South American countries, took place in the month of June. All of the games, regardless of which countries were playing, were watched in every bar, restaurant and home. It was fun to watch the games and talk to everyone about “last night’s game”. Peru was a big contender and advanced to the semifinals where they sadly lost to Chile. Chile, the host country, ended up beating Argentina in the finals. We were cheering for Argentina.

The only downside to the Copa Cup was that the women’s World Cup was held during the same period of time. This made watching games nearly impossible since men’s soccer took priority, of course. I didn’t find one person (man or woman) in Peru who knew that the women’s World Cup even existed. We managed to catch the first five of the USA games either by a live-stream or by going to TGIFridays (shhh! Don’t tell anyone). We normally make it a habit to avoid all American stores, but for my women we made an exception! (We saw the finals in Lima… that’s the next post).

Spanish School

The main reason we stayed in Arequipa for so long was to take two weeks of Spanish classes. This time we upped the ante by taking classes five days a week for four hours a day. I really liked my teacher and finally felt like I found someone who understood my style of learning. We had a lot of fun in class together.


Colca Canyon: 3-Day, 2-Night Adventure

Before we started Spanish classes we wanted to explore Colca Canyon and the surrounding valley. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa described Colca as “The Valley of Wonders”. The area proudly showcases massive volcanoes, narrow gorges, desert landscape, pre-Inca terraced agricultural slopes and remote traditional villages. The Colca River, one of the sources of the Amazon River, slices through the massive gorge.

Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon at 11,150 feet, Colca Canyon is part of a volcanic mountain range more than 60 miles long. We spent a few days at the Grand Canyon this past October and we were excited to explore another impressive natural wonder.

Planning our 4-day journey to Machu Picchu took a lot of time and energy, so I simply asked our hotel to just book our trip for us. I was burnt out on doing research and dealing with logistics. The thought of handing the reigns over to someone else felt like a really good idea for a change. We paid our money, packed one backpack to share between us and went to bed early because we were being picked up at 4:00 AM.

Day #1

The ridiculously early start was necessary because access to the trailhead was six hours away at Cabanaconde. Also, the condors that inhabit the area are most active in the morning so we had to leave early to catch them in action. Once the sun rose we all woke surrounded by spectacular scenery.


The sun was already beaming with intensity by the time we started hiking down into the canyon. The trail was steep and slippery with dry scree. The three miles we hiked straight down were BRUTAL on our knees. Our quads took quite a beating as well. The combination of the steep, rocky path and tired legs had me tripping several times, toppling forward like a drunk turtle with my pack on. Even all the younger hikers complained about the non-stop stress on their knees. Our eyes on the Colca River prize down below, we chatted with the others in our group and made our way down to the water.


Three hours later we arrived at the river, red-faced, sweaty and covered with dust. We walked over the suspension bridge, hiked up a steep incline and then walked another mile paralleling the river until we reached San Juan de Chucco, our home for the night. We were promised “basic” accommodations and that’s what we got. We didn’t mind not having heat or electricity, but clean sheets would have been nice.


Day #2

The next day we hiked for three hours across a section of the canyon. The lateral movement felt good on our legs and gave us a chance to look around and observe our surroundings. One side of the canyon was a sheer rock wall, dry and inhospitable. The other side was thick with desert vegetation. There are 14 traditional villages/pueblos throughout the valley and we hiked through several that day. It was eye-opening to see how people live in such remote and desolate conditions. We were fascinated by the practical farming techniques, specifically water management. Water was gathered in containers at high elevation, using gravity to disperse it through channels to the crops below.


We spent the second afternoon and night at Sangalle, nicknamed the Oasis, a village located at the base of the gorge. Lush vegetation and natural pools dotted the landscape thanks to the channels of water cascading down from the mountains. While it seemed a contradiction to have such a lush environment in the midst of arid, desert mountains, we didn’t hesitate and jumped right into the cold pool. We spent the remainder of the day hanging out with our five hiking companions, whose average age was 21. As usual we were the elders of our group. We all had a good time together and we especially enjoyed getting to know Asta and Simone from Denmark.



Day #3

We started hiking up the canyon at 5:00 AM in total darkness, our footsteps illuminated only by our headlamps. The hike down was so brutal that we were all pretty much dreading the hike back up. And for good reason because it, too, was BRUTAL! Three miles straight up the side of a dry, dusty and rocky mountain path. We passed one woman who was weeping out loud because the hike was so challenging. There were even a few people who had to ride donkeys to make it to the top. We forged ahead, three hours in all, and felt like champs when we reached the top.


On the way back to Arequipa we made the obligatory stop at one of the small villages where we, once again, didn’t buy anything but walked around and took photos.


The last stop of the day was at a 16,000 foot mountain pass. Here we are with Sabancaya, an active volcano, blowing steam behind us. The air was thin, the view was spectacular and we were feeling very happy and oh so tired. Gracias, Colca Canyon!