Thursday, March 21, 2013


Our last day on the reserve in Ecuador coincided with the last day of our 90-day visa in the country.  Knowing that we would have no time for travel in Ecuador (save that for another visit, perhaps?), we had purchased departure tickets out of Bogota, Colombia.  The last day in Ecuador, thus, began as hiking our muddy reserve trail in pre-dawn darkness and busing to Quito to meet our friend Fawn, who had flown in the previous night to join us.  When we bussed to the border together, there was hardly anybody there.  As we crossed, a spanish couple recognized us as the few tourists around, and told us to turn around:  there was a big protest where the Colombian coffee growers had blocked off the Pan-American highway and there was nowhere to go past the border town. "Go back to Ecuador and travel there until the protests stop," they said.  We thanked them and explained that our visas in Ecuador had expired and we'd just have to wait things out. So we stayed the first night in the border town, Ipiales. 

Our Colombia book says that there is nothing to see in Ipiales, and it is right. Nearby, however, there is a church that is worth a glance, so we headed out that way.  In a gorge nearby, a person once saw the image of the Virgin Mary in a stone cliff.  They built a chapel and later a basilica right in the middle of the gorge
Santuario las Lajas near Ipiales
with the sanctuary protecting the image of Mary in the cliff (we could not see her image in the rocks, but we believe it was there somewhere).
The sanctuary protects the stone cliff where the image of Virgin Mary was seen.
The whole thing was quite impressive, especially on a Sunday when thousands of pilgrims came to back-to-back masses and the trails in and around were packed with vendors selling candles, virgin statues, charms, fried chicken, and roasted guinea pigs.
Roasted cuy, or guinea pig.  Look, they're smiling!
We headed out to Pasto that evening, the last big city before the highway closed to the coffee protesters.  At least Pasto, our book says, is worth a stay for a day.  We would spend 5 days  stuck in Pasto seeing what was worth a day's glance.  We first checked on plane tickets to Bogota, which were very difficult to get and very expensive until the prices went down later that week, so we booked the later flight, just in case the protests didn't end.  Southern Colombia was going into disarray at the time, since the transportation shutdown stopped supplies of food and fuel. 
Gas stations cordoned off in Pasto
All the gas stations in Pasto shut down their pumps, with "diesel only" signs up everywhere. Taxis were getting their fuel on the black market (Ecuadorian fuel was nearby, but illegal to import due to tariffs and different environmental standards) and illegally charging double.  But buses were still running, and we were able to make some fun side trips despite the chaos. 

Laguna de la Cocha was our first side trip.  It has a little cloud-forest island in the middle that is a national park.

Old boardwalk in the bullrushes of Isla de la Cocha
After boating out there, we checked out the town, El Encano, which is appears to be quite the tourist destination, except that we were literally the only ones there.  so the three of us had a choice of about 20 restaurants to try the famous Cocha lake trout. We had a great lunch and the family that lived there, and a stroll around town, which was crossed by canals filled with empty tour boats and lined with deserted restaurants with swiss chalet facades. 
The canals and houses of El Encano
The other side trip was to Laguna Verde, an electric-green crater lake colored by sulfur emissions from the volcano underneath.  It was a long, mountainous bus ride up there, where the hike began at dizzying altitude inside of the frigid clouds.
The hike up to Laguna Verde
The day hike took us to the top of the volcano, at 4000 meters (a little over 13,000 feet), overlooking the green lake.  Aside from almost getting arrested as undocumented immigrants on the way back home (due to robbery warnings in the area, we left our passports back in the secure hotel), we had another nice day trip.
We made it to Laguna Verde!
And the views on the way down were beautiful as the clouds cleared.
Views of the Narino region of Colombia
We flew to Bogota the day the protests ended. Even had we not flown, we would have lost a lot of time trying to bus back up, so the flight caught us back up with the schedule. We missed our planned trip to Popayan, which was isolated into economic distress from the protests, and Salento in the coffee growing region, which we decided was not a good place to visit either. We were happy to get around the problems and connected back into the world.
Plaza Bolivar, Bogota
Bogota, with over 7 million people, is one of the top 5 largest cities in the Americas. We're not big-city people, but it was a lot of fun.  The historic Candalaria district is beautiful and exciting, packed with historic buildings and narrow cobblestone alleys, and hopping with night life, coffee shops, and good restaurants. We were very happy that we spent some time there because it was much more fun than Quito, Ecuador, in our opinion.  Quito has the crazy gringo-party area in one side of town and the historic town is choked off by the business district, so that there's not a lot to do there. 
streets of La Candelaria
We made another side trip to Villa de Leyva, a beautiful colonial town.  On the way, we went to the famous Andres Carne de Res, which is a mega nightclub/restaurant coated with junkyard kitsch.  Kate and fawn perused their 60-page menu/magazine, which actually yielded some of the best steak and meat dinners we had eaten since Gladys's grill in Mindo.  It was wildly overpriced, but we had a fun time anyway. 
Fawn and Kate check out the menu at Andres CR
We also stopped in the salt cathedral in Zipaquira.  Centuries of salt mining produced massive caverns which were eventually carved into an underground sanctuary with stations of the cross and salt artwork.  It has been called "Colombia's greatest architectural achievement."  I wouldn't go that far, but it was impressive.
Reflecting pool in the salt cavern

Sanctuary of the salt cathederal in Zipaquira
Villa de Leyva was the perfect contrast to Bogota.  Small, cozy, and declared a national monument to protect the early colonial architecture downtown.  
Historic plaza in Villa de Leyva
It was full of quiet plazas with happy restaurants and beautiful weaving shops using the local wool and dyeing traditions. 
Kate and fawn try on some fun dyed wool items
It's in a valley where a lot of dinosaur fossils have been found, so we made sure to visit the paleontological museum there.
Kate and fawn check out the chronosaurus in the paleontological museum
Back in Bogota, we spent our last few days enjoying the incredible food and beer they produce there.  There were, of course, churches, the presidential palace, lots of architecture, and the best museums we've seen in Latin America to date. 

Iglesia de Santa Clara with its mudejar-style baroque architecture
The gold museum is world famous, featuring many Incan and pre-european gold pieces from the region.
Incan figures in the Museo de Oro
The Botero museum was quite a trip with Colombian artist Fernando Botero's famous chubby things.
Botero's version of the Mona Lisa

everything Botero does is chubby, be it people or animals
We finished the visit with a run up the gondola to Monserrate, a chapel on a mountaintop overlooking the metropolis as it melted into sunset.

View over Bogota from Cerro Monserrate
Looking back on the Colombia trip, we were very impressed by the overall safety we felt in the country and the hospitality and friendliness of its people.  Unlike Ecuador and Peru, which seemed jaded by their long-flourishing tourism business, Colombia was fresh and welcoming. Don't get me wrong; the Ecuadorians were very gracious to us and the country was beautiful, but in Colombia we felt extra special. In towns and cities where we were the only white faces, Colombians would walk up to us and start asking us questions, some to practice their english with us, others to help us with directions or exchange email addresses--almost never begging for money or hassling us.  We flew home thinking one day we'll return to see more of Colombia and Ecuador when there's more time for travel and less time for work.  Two weeks is just not enough to get to know a couple countries.

Kate and I are back with family for a week and then off to Bryce Canyon for a month of working with their astronomy program.  We have a little more time off in May, and then we hope to return to Stehekin for another season in the North Cascades.  Remember that we love visitors in Stehekin and book with us in advance if you want a private room to stay.  And consider coming some time other than August, because that's when everybody wants to come.  We hope to be back with more stories after some time in Bryce.


  1. hi guys, just want to say that i avidly read and relish all your posts. i love the way you live your lives! <3 carolyn (pc/tz pal of kate's)

  2. Another fantastic blog. How do you do it? Guess you have to travel to exotic places first. Then the blog?

  3. WOW! Your trip looks amazing. I am happy to see you are both traveling around and enjoying your time between gigs.

    Still wandering and educating in the West Eugene Wetlands, Cheers, Susanna