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?

Peru: Lima

We decided to fly one hour north to Lima from Arequipa instead of taking a 15 hour bus ride. Smart move on our part if I do say so myself. Luckily our gut issues resolved themselves in time for us to board the plane.


Lima: The Belly of a Burro

The capital of Peru sits on sandy cliffs in the desert above the Pacific Ocean. Blanketed in a heavy, gray fog much of the year, Lima is not what you’d call a city of sunshine. Herman Melville nicknamed Lima “the strangest and saddest city thou can’t see”. Other authors have likened its gray skies to the “belly of a burro”. Being from Portland you’d think we would feel right at home, but guess again. The lack of color in the sky definitely felt odd to us and made the city feel cold and dark, despite the warm temperatures.


Peru’s Seaside Desert Capital

We were in Lima for one week and had a relaxing time. A city of 10 million people, the Lima metro area is massive and sprawling. While we only explored a few pockets of the city, we feel we are in a position to give Lima the “conscientious driver” award. Instead of being practically run over by every driver on the road, we actually had a few stop and wave us across the street. Of course the bus drivers were still crazy and reckless which always makes for interesting travel.

Our hotel was in Miraflores, a 20 minute walk from bustling Kennedy Park, where at least 75 stray cats live. One day I sat down with a sandwich and was immediately surrounded by five cats begging for a bite. They seem well taken care of and honestly, after seeing nothing but stray dogs for the past five months it was pretty fun having cats around.

We did a lot of walking in Miraflores and neighboring Barranco and we were happy to have lovely 70 degree days. We enjoyed the ocean views from above the cliffs and explored the beach a few times. The Pacific was too cold for swimming, just like the Oregon coast, but the surfers didn’t seem to mind. A highlight for me was finding a Mexican restaurant. I ate a burrito with hot sauce and was in total heaven! One day we went on a walking tour of central Lima and spent the afternoon in and around the Plaza de Armas. The main square was grand and hosted several impressive churches and government buildings of varying architectural styles.


Huaca Pucllana Ruins

Only a 20 minute walk from our hotel, the ruins are located in the heart of Miraflores. This 1,500 year old temple is still in the process of being restored. It’s interesting to see the juxtaposition of the ruins adjacent to modern buildings. Imagine having a place where women and babies were sacrificed to the gods right out your door.


1087 Bistro 

Lima prides itself on being the culinary capital of South America. While we really enjoy eating delicious meals (who doesn’t?), the combination of our our tight budget and backpacker wardrobe usually means seeking out cheap eats wherever we go. However, in Lima we were in for a real treat. Thanks to Harry’s niece Emma, we enjoyed a spectacular meal prepared right in front of us. Emma’s friend Felipe works in a new restaurant called “1087 Bistro” and he invited us to dinner. We were served a five course meal using only locally sourced ingredients. My vegetarian ceviche rivaled Harry’s whitefish ceviche, every dish was full of flavor and even the flowers were edible.


World Cup + Copa Cup

It was really exciting to be in South America during the Copa Cup, especially since Peru was a big contender. We watched most of their games while we were in Arequipa and cheered them on with all the locals. We watched them play in the semifinals against Chile while we were in Lima, but sadly they lost. Chile, the host country, ended up beating Argentina in the finals.

The USA women rocked the World Cup! We watched most of their games in Arequipa but we were in Lima for the finals. In fact, the reason we stayed in Lima through July 6th was so we could be in the big city to watch the final game. Yes, I scheduled our trip around the World Cup. And they won!! Wasn’t that game just incredible? As we watched them play Japan in the finals I was filled with excitement and emotion. USA!


Next Up: Volunteering in Trujillo

Over the past months we’ve been searching for another volunteer opportunity. We couldn’t wait to start volunteering with Hilo Rojo, a non-profit school for high-poverty kids living in Trujillo. We were craving a deeper connection with a community and what better way than by working with kids.

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!