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?

Ecuador: Cuenca, Baños + Misahualli

Ecuador: Facts + Observations

  • Ecuador is a small country (the size of Colorado), but it packs a punch! There are four diverse regions: Amazon Rainforest, Andian Highlands, Pacific coast and the Galapagos Islands. We explored all four regions.
  • The Panama hat is actually from Ecuador. Say what? In 1904 President Roosevelt was wearing an Ecuadorian hat when he visited the Panama Canal, and the media gave it the wrong name. The hats are still made in Ecuador.
  • Ecuador’s four major exports are oil, shrimp, bananas and roses. Yes, roses! Due to the equator, there’s natural light all year round which roses need to thrive, so they grow nice and tall. We were told that an Ecuadorian suitor should never buy his gal roses because they are such a “common” flower.
  • The traffic in Ecuador is relatively sane. The country as a whole wins the civilized traffic award based on driver courtesy and low horn usage. Note: the bus drivers still drive like maniacs.
  • Rafael Correa has been the president for the past 10 years. An economist by trade, he has reduced Ecuador’s debt significantly and invested heavily in education and infrastructure.
  • Buses work differently in Ecuador, making our bus rides even more challenging and annoying than normal. 1) Even though you buy a “direct” bus ticket, in reality there’s no such thing. Every bus will literally stop a million times along the way to pick up and drop off people. 2) The driver has a security wall behind him, which means that passengers cannot see out the front of the bus. This means I get car sick unless I take a Dramamine. 3) Vendors regularly get on and off the buses and walk down the aisles to sell their goods, like fried chicken, natural supplements, candy, sun glasses, and hot dogs.
  • We heard more stories about travelers getting pick-pocketed or scammed in Ecuador than in all other countries combined. Luckily nothing happened to us.
  • Ecuadorians love their ice cream! They eat it on foot, bikes, motorcycles and horses. You can buy ice cream from vendors in parks, on street corners and at traffic lights. Ice cream is to Ecuadorians as soup is to Peruvians.

Cuenca: Our First Stop 

Located in the Andes in southern Ecuador, Cuenca is a picturesque city with four rivers running through it. A major expat community, Cuenca offers a nice blend of local and international, old and new. Known to be Ecuador’s center of art and culture, Cuenca has a charming historical district, cobblestone streets, old colonial homes and over 50 churches. I was quite pleased to discover that Cuencans are in love with drinking hot chocolate made from Ecuador’s fine cocoa and milk.

Through Airbnb, we signed up to spend five days with Diana and her mother Ines in their old family home. What started as a rental quickly turned into a genuine friendship and we extended our stay to 10 days.

It was appealing for us to live with a family so we could experience Ecuador on a more intimate level. Additionally, we wanted to practice our Spanish, and what better way to do so than by living with a Spanish-speaking family? At times our Spanish felt fluid and graceful, while at other times (perhaps most of the time) it felt clunky and chunky. But laughter goes a long way and really, we did just fine.

On our first night in town, Diana, who is an artist, art teacher and hot chocolate addict, and her friend John drove us around and showed us all the local hot spots, including a giant swing (keep reading to find out more). This was a fun outing that included a visit to their favorite ice cream shop. We ended up spending a lot of time together that week. One memorable night we drank cheap whiskey and went out salsa dancing. We ate several meals together and we shared a lot about our lives in Ecuador and the US.

John is a big futbol (soccer) player and one night he invited us to join him for one of his games. Half the players on both teams were adults and the other half were kids, including Diana’s niece and nephew. The boys were not only young and fast, they also had great ball skills so we basically got schooled for an hour. It was a ton of fun and yes, we were very sore the next few days.

One Sunday Ines invited us to join her family at her “campo” (country home) about 30 minutes outside the city. There were 15 of us and we spent the leisurely day walking around the wooded property, eating heaps of food, drinking mugs of hot chocolate, practicing our Spanish and relaxing by the campfire.


You think you know someone… and then he climbs onto a big metal swing with nothing but a seat belt to hold him in place and swings like a giddy fool high above the city of Cuenca.

IMG_1868IMG_1870IMG_1874Harry was pretty pleased with himself!

These Guys

My Portland friend Beth e-introduced us to her friends living in Cuenca. Bill, a retired American teacher, and Rodolfo, an Ecuadorian tour guide, invited us over for a homemade dinner one night with their American teacher friends Karen and Dorothy. They gave us the insider scoop about Ecuador. We had so much fun and laughed like crazy at Rodolfo’s stories. On another afternoon we met to discuss our travel plans while indulging in the most fabulous mugs of hot chocolate ever made. These guys made our stay in Cuenca even more special than it already was.


Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park, only 45 minutes outside of Cuenca, is located in the highlands of Ecuador at 14,000 feet. The jagged landscape is covered with tundra vegetation. There are over 270 lakes and lagoons in the park. We spent one day hiking around the gem that is Cajas.


Baños: Adventure Capital of Ecuador

From Cuenca, we took one bus seven hours north and another bus one hour east to get to Baños. This cute town is surrounded by huge mountains on all sides. Many people come here to spend time and money zip-lining across the gorge, repelling down waterfalls and bungee jumping off bridges. We prefer our adventures to be a little more low-key, like riding bicycles on the highway next to trucks.

One day we rented some bikes and zipped down along the “route of the waterfalls”, a ride that took us on a busy road next to horses and big trucks. What a fun way to spend the day! Well, riding through a dark and scary tunnel wasn’t that fun, it was more like a total adrenaline rush. The 15 mile journey culminated at a majestic waterfall accessible only by hiking down into the gorge.


Misahualli: A Taste Of The Jungle

Taking Bill and Rodolfo’s advice, we made our way to Misahualli to experience the Ecuadorian jungle. It must be noted that the five hour bus ride through the mountains was just. plain. horrible. You get the picture.


Instead of embarking on a multi-day jungle tour, we opted to spend a few days in Misahualli where we got a taste of the jungle. We swam in the river and successfully avoided being eaten by a mysterious water creature (which surely exists). We hiked in the humidity up and down a muddy path to a waterfall that didn’t quite live up to its reputation, but we saw some magical butterflies along the way. We marveled at the beautiful jungle foliage and relaxed in the evenings listening to the sound of frogs and other creatures chirping and humming in the darkness.


As tempting as it was, we both decided not to eat grilled grubs on-a-stick, a jungle delicacy. However, we did like the way you could choose which wiggling grub you wanted to eat before it got speared and cooked.


Misahualli is known for the monkeys that hang out in the small village square and I was determined not to leave until I could take a selfie with a cute little guy on my shoulder. Ha! Little did I know that instead, I would be bullied and harassed.

Harry went into a store to buy our bus tickets while I stood guard over our backpacks, happily watching the monkeys up in the trees, silently begging them to come and play with me. All of a sudden one of them ran over, pushed me (aka: scared me) out of the way and jumped onto my backpack. Within seconds he had unzipped the top part of my pack. I was yelling at him to stop, but he just hissed at me (did you know that monkeys could hiss?), grabbed my notebook and threw it on the ground. As I worried about my safety and well-being, he reached in further, grabbed my book and ran away. What a little shit!

Harry returned three minutes later, disappointed that he missed the spectacle.


Up Next: Quito and the Ecuadorian Coast