7:03AM EST

It's finally here!!! After months of planning, saving, and yes, freaking out a little, I am finally on the plane to South America - first stop: Cartagena, Colombia!

My bag before and after - it is almost exactly 20lbs!

There were some difficult choices to make - I even weighed my earrings to decide which pair to take!

After leaving Phoenix at 10:49pm, I made my tight connection at JFK airport, and am on the plane to Fort Lauderdale before my last flight to Cartagena!

The last few days have been full of goodbyes and I'll-see-you-before-you-know-it's, and I was seen off at the airport by two of the most wonderful (and goofy!) people in the world!

I swear, they were trying to come with me!

I haven't been able to sleep on the second plane, so I've been watching "planet earth" and the sunrise...

Somehow watching the sun peek over the horizon seems fitting...

1
Cartagena

After one final skip over the Caribbean, I arrived in Cartagena at 2:30pm yesterday! .

I decided I wanted to see some of the city before going to sleep, so I ventured off into the old walled city and got to see some truly beautiful sights.

I got a little lost near the end, but found my way back and got some good pictures!

After returning, I met a fellow traveler on the roof of the hostel, and I tried out my new harmonica while she played the ukulele - she was remarkable patient! 😂

Before heading to sleep, I looked myself up on Google maps to try to get it through my head that I'm on a different continent!

* \240 \240* \240 \240*

Sharing a room with thirteen other people turns out to be about as raucous as one might expect... Between florescent lights, loud talking, snoring, and alarms going off, my night was a bit of a comedy of errors. Despite all that, I managed to get a full night's sleep, and wake up rested for the first time in a week. (There was so much to do before I left!)

After breakfast at the hostel, I braced myself for what I had decided to consider a "cultural experience." Since the US is experiencing a nation-wide shortage of yellow fever vaccinations, I did some research and discovered that I could actually get one in Cartagena, instead. I asked at the front desk, and as it turned out, the clinic was just around the corner, rather than the half hour taxi ride away that I had expected it to be! Once I arrived at the clinic, I was told by a (rather brusque) nurse to take my place in line in the plastic chairs set up in the room. I still had no idea what to expect, but I entered the "Vacunado" room and within five minutes, the paperwork and shot were over with! Overall the entire experience lasted only about a half hour, and best of all, it was free! (Other travelers I met paid $90 in their home countries!) Don't tell ME socialized medicine doesn't work!

After the clinic, I ventured back out into the old town to see what there was to see. I spent most of the time wandering, but I dipped into the tiny Emerald Museum after lunch. Odd, but cute!

My service in the city is good enough that I even got to Facetime my parents briefly!

I then spent about an hour in the Inquisition museum, where I learned that Cartagena had housed the center for the Spanish Inquisition in the region for awhile.

This was followed by a late afternoon tour of the city by Manuel, who gave us an upbeat description of the city's history. Cartagena was the main Spanish port in South America during colonial rule, and it is surrounded by an 8-km (once 11-km!) long wall, which was constructed to keep out pirates and privateers. The city also has a dark history as the main city for the slave trade in South America during the colonial period, which only ended after Cartagena gained independence in 1821. Likely because of its history, as you walk the streets, you can see what an incredibly diverse city it is.

Whew! What a few days. I'll do my best to summarize!

Tuesday, January 30th

Today, I decided to move hostels to seek out a better *vibe* (and a room with fewer than 14 people!) and found a wonderful one down the street called Mama Waldy. However, after a bedbug scare there, I moved rooms and washed all my clothes. (They were not done till the next day though, so I had to sleep in my bathing suit!) Luckily, I have had no problems in the new room, and am really enjoying the new place!

After that, some newfound friends (Charlie, Jess, and Ciaron) and I headed out to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, an old Spanish fort built to fend off pirates!

The view from the fort was absolutely incredible, and worth the steep climb to the top!

Ciaron, Charlie, Jess,and I at the top!

Best of all though were the tunnels that permeated most of the fortress! They were SUPER creepy and dark, and we took turns jumping out of corners and scaring the living daylights out of each other.

I couldn't resist a few melodramatic tunnel selfies...

When we excited the tunnels, the Golden twilight was absolutely SPLENDID.

From the top of the fortress, we happened to notice a large group of people in front of a stage. We decided to investigate, and as it turned out, there was a festival of fried food, complete with dancing, music, and jumping castle!

Wednesday, January 31st

Today, I had breakfast with Charlie at a adorable cafe called "Stepping Stones," which hires at-risk youth to wait tables and gain work experience.

After breakfast, we picked up Jess from language school and headed to a nearby park, where we met up with Ciaron and discovered an abundance of gorgeous red squirrels, as well as sloths and iguanas! Supposedly, there were monkeys in the park as well, but we didn't spot any. Hard to believe that this mini ecosystem exists in the middle of a city!

We followed up the park by visiting El Museo de Oro, the gold museum, where we learned about the Zenu people, an indigenous group that built intricate canals and had a complex society spanning much of central Colombia.

This was followed by a traditional dance we stumbled across in the park - someday maybe I'll be able to dance like that!

Finally, we ended up at a crepe restaurant, and had THE most wonderful mushroom + garlic sauce crepe, followed by a delicious banana flambe crepe.

Thursday, February 1st

Today, I wandered to a nearby supermercado, and picked up breakfast, including a mango from a street vendor out front. Funny how tropical fruit tends to taste better in the tropics...

I had a slow afternoon at Ciaron's hostel, trying to decide on my next destination (stay tuned!), and soaking up the Caribbean warmth...

We wandered out eventually to the modern art museum, which was small but PHENOMENAL. An exhibit about Afro-carribean female street vendors was especially powerful. The museum featured many women artists (I would guess about half!) which was also refreshing. It has been interesting to note quite a bit of female representation in Colombia, including on many of their bills. The sociologist in me wonders if this symbolic representation translates to more social equality, but it is difficult to say without spending more time here. On a somewhat related note, our Cartagena tour guide mentioned that women far outnumber men in the city by about 4 to 1. Again, as a sociologist, I wonder why that is, and how it affects social interactions here!

After a dinner of ceviche (I've been craving it - who DOESN'T like raw fish "cooked" in lime juice?!), I headed back for a slow evening, and even made a new friend!

As it turns out, ceviche sometimes comes with unintended consequences... I woke up this morning with a mild stomach ache and was only able to choke down half of breakfast before deciding that it was better if I postponed my morning plans. I spent the next hour and a half in bed, and decided around noon that I was feeling well enough to venture out.

A common view in this hostel

I had read or heard somewhere that there was going to be a procession for La Virgen o Candelaria, patroness of La Popa, the convent on the highest point in Cartagena. I had seen some processions in the week proceeding Easter when I studied abroad in Costa Rica - long, elaborate parades depicting the labors of Christ - and I thought this might be a variation on that. As a result, Ciaron and some new friends and I ventured out into the city via taxi, and arrived at the base of the hill around 2pm. We were told by the local police that the procession would arrive around 3:30, so we headed to a local market we had read about in the guidebook.

Mercdo de Bazurto was a hodgepodge of hundreds of store fronts pushed together in little to no apparent order, an assault on the senses of noise, color, and loud music. As far as we could tell, we were the only gringos there! I didn't want to pull out my phone if I could help it, but I took a quick picture of a stall and a picture taken from the second story to give you all an idea!

After the market, we headed back towards La Popa, see below at the top of the hill.

On our way back, we stopped in a mall about three blocks from the market. In this city, several locals have references the idea of "two Cartagenas," one squeaky clean and tourist-ready, and the other poor and working class. Nowhere else have I seen it quite as clearly as in the contrast between this mall and the market. It forces one to wonder about the impact one has as an outsider on these two worlds.

After the mall, we arrived back at the foot of the hill around 3:30 and waited for the procession. And waited. And waited. Aaaaaand waited....

Saggy, Ciaron, me, and Rashid, maintaining good spirits

A woman selling dyed chicks set up shop beside us, much to the wonder and excitement of the children in the crowd, who gathered around and begged their parents to let them take one home! Don't ask me why there were dyed or being sold in the first place... Perhaps the equivalency of goldfish sold at a carnival?

Finally, around 6pm, the procession arrived. It was far different \240from the elaborate parades I had seen in Costa Rica, and simply consisted of La Virgen, followed by hundreds of people singing and changing, "Viva la Virgen!" The four of us had expected something a bit more, but they were good sports about it, and I personally felt lucky to have been able to partake in such a celebrated tradition.

For more information about La Popa, check out: http://www.cartagenainfo.com/lapopa/index.html (fair warning - it's in Spanish!)

After the procession, we wandered back towards our hostels, and happened to pass the festival of fried food again! As it turns out, it's actually part of the celebrations of La Virgen!

The view heading back

Unfortunately, as we made our way back, it became clear that the ceviche was taking its second revenge, and I spent most of the evening worshiping the porcelain throne... Although everywhere I've read says the water is fine to drink in Cartagena, I will also be switching to bottled water for the remainder of my time here... On the bright side, I've checked off the traveler must-do of getting food poisoning off my list!

It is currently 20 till 12, when this girl officially turns 22, so I'm gonna get my beauty sleep in the hopes that the fish from last night and I have parted ways for good now...

Buenas noches...

2
Minca

Saturday, February 3rd

My birthday!!! I'm officially 22!!!

Having a birthday while traveling can be an odd experience. The usual traditions are hard to recreate, and you're far away from home, family, and longtime friends. When I studied in Costa Rica, my flight to the country was actually exactly on my birthday, and as I traveled through airports I would occasionally remember that I was turning twenty that day and sort of laugh to myself, because it didn't feel like a birthday. That being said, it can also be exciting, and in a way you realize that traveling is a sort of gift to yourself!

In any case, I had a wonderful time today! I started the day by heading to Playa Blanca with Jess and Charlie. The plaza was gorgeous in the morning, and I made another new friend!

We spent the day relaxing and swimming in water that was literally turquoise! Although to be fair, the picture below is a bit misleading, since the beach was fairly crowded all day...

I treated myself to a (virgin) coco loco, since my stomach was still not feeling the greatest.

Charlie, me, and Jess

We returned to Cartagena tired but happy.

Later, my wonderful family Facetimed me and sang me happy birthday...

...complete with howling Copper!!

Get it? 22?

After dinner with Jess and Charlie, I met some new friends at the hostel, Sharon and Kristin, from Britain and Sweden! They were kind enough to treat me to a drink while we watched street performers.

Although this wasn't a "traditional" birthday per say, it was a wonderful one, full of good people and new experiences!

Sunday, February 4th

Travel day! Destination: Minca!

Cartagena has treated me well, but I was getting antsy to move on. After breakfast and a goodbye from my feline friend (a street cat that has adopted the hostel), I was picked up by a shuttle to Santa Marta.

Goodbye Cartagena street art!

During most of the four hour trip, we passed arid, flat coastland full of scrubby trees and cacti, but as we neared Santa Marta, the Sierra Nevada mountains began to crop up on the horizon, and my inner mountain girl leapt for joy. Santa Marta is a coastal city at the base of the mountains where Minca is tucked away.

My shuttle driver was kind enough to drop me at the pickup location for the Minca colectivo (basically a glorified van), and from there we headed into the mountains.

Definitely in the jungle! I couldn't get my camera out fast enough to catch the one with monkey crossing on it!

Minca. Is. GORGEOUS.

My hostel, Casa Relax, feels more like a tree house than a hostel, and I am so excited to wake up here tomorrow and see what adventures await!!

The past few days in Minca have been a blur, not because I've been doing so much but because I've been doing so little!

Minca has been incredibly slow paced, and I have spent a rather large portion of my time here relaxing on the porch, in hammocks, or in bed. (I'm telling myself I'm just preparing for Carnaval in Baranquilla!) Anyway, "Casa Relax" is aptly named and between myself and my hostel-mates, we've definitely run that joke into the ground!

In any case, rather than spell out each day, I'll just fill you in on some of the highlights and the rest will be a photo dump. :)

Probably the two most memorable parts of my visit here have been the cacao farm and the waterfalls at Pozo Azul...

Monday, February 5th

I think my "big accomplishment" for the day was making it into town for dinner when my new friend Andrea invited me! The rest was spent - you guessed it - relaxing!

This little fellow wanted to snuggle up in my bed, but seemed happy enough to hang out with me for a bit instead!

The view from my bed, for those of you wondering about the "tree house"!

Tuesday, February 6th

Tuesday Andrea and I visited La Candelaria, an organic cacao farm. The hike there and back was incredibly brutal (though gorgeous), but worth it! We got to see the actual trees where they grow their cacao, as well as experience the entire process of making the chocolate, from picking to fermenting to roasting to crushing.

View of Santa Marta

The cacao pods

Cacao flower - scentless! The flowers are pollinated by the wind, incredibly.

Fermenting and roasted cacao nibs. Fermenting is apparently an important part of the process!

Wednesday, February 7th

Took a quick dip in the river before going to dinner with Andrea, Kate (more new friends!), and Jess, whom I had left in Cartagena, but who then ended up at my hostel, along with Charlie, who was under the weather.

Thursday, February 8th

Jess and I hiked to Pozo Azul today and spent quite a few hours splashing around in the pools and waterfalls!

Shortcut to town

Met this beauty on our walk!

Jess is braver than I am...

We got a guy standing far above us to take our picture!! And then miraculously to get it to my phone! This was between the two biggest waterfalls - actually pretty challenging to get to, but we enjoyed slipping on the rocks in the rapids once we made it!

This guy was about the size of my thumb. It was a great day for wildlife - we also saw monkeys!

Yet another installation in the ongoing collection, "Anna Takes a Dumb Selfie," this time featuring a banana spider!

Tomorrow it's off to Santa Marta, then to Baranquilla!

3
Santa Marta

Friday, February 9th

After saying goodbye to Minca, Andrea and I took another colectivo down the mountain into Santa Marta, and arrived at our hostel, Masaya. Complete with rooftop pool, restaurant, bar, and live music, it was quite the destination!

I ate lunch at a local restaurant, then took a nap in my curtained bed (felt like a low-budget queen!)

After watching the sunset from the roof and skyping with my friend Lexi (coming soon: Anna and Lexi visit Ecuador!), I headed out with a new friend, Kati, for a night on the town! When I came back, Andrea and I watched some live music on the roof before crashing in preparation for an early morning...

4
Barranquilla

Carnaval de Barranquilla - ¡Quien lo vive es quien lo goza! (Roughly translated: If you live it, you love it!)

There was so much to process that it's hard to even begin to explain! These crazy four days have been full of color, music, dancing, and new experiences!

Barranquilla claims the second largest Carnaval in the world, after Rio de Janeiro. No one is quite sure how or when it started, but it dates back at least to the 1800's. The celebrations last for four days before Ash Wednesday, and they are marked by parades, concerts, and elaborate costumes.

There are a handful of characters who have been replicated by people throughout the decades. Among these are the Marimondas (perhaps the most important symbol of the parade, with their iconic mouse-meets-elephant-meets-monkey look [although there are - ah - other interpretations to the long nose]), el Son de Negro, el Monocultivo, and la Negrita Puloy, among many others.

While the characters all appear to be meant in good fun, and the costumes are all steeped in tradition as well as the Carnaval spirit of exaggeration and impersonation, it was incredibly uncomfortable to watch the Sons de Negros and the Negritas Puloy, because the costumes essentially amount to blackface. I did some research on the tradition, and there are some sites that claim that they were originally created and celebrated by Afro-carribean peoples, particularly from San Basilio de Palenque, a town founded by people who escaped slavery. However, the wording on the site was a little unclear, and it seems more likely that they were created to make fun of these people, given that the exaggerated features and body movements are painfully similar to those of US minstrel shows of old. That being said, I am approaching this with the an American perspective, and American understandings of race, so it's possible that my reading of it is completely off. If anyone has more information about this, I would love to hear more!

You can read more about them here in English: http://carnivaldancesbarranquilla.blogspot.com.co/search?updated-max=2013-11-19T19:33:00-08:00&max-results=7&m=1

And in more detail In Spanish: http://www.carnavalesbarranquilla.com/p/disfraces-del-carnaval-de-barranquilla_15.html?m=1

Overall, Carnaval de Barranquilla is an incredibly unique and beautiful event, and I am so glad that I got to go!

Saturday, February 10th

After a two hour bus ride from Santa Marta, Emerique (a friend I met in Minca) and I arrived in Barranquilla, dumped our stuff at the hotel (yes, I got upgraded from a hostel!!), and headed out to the first big parade, la Batalla de Flores.

On the way there, I purchased a hat (which I rather regretted) and a can of espuma (which I did NOT regret!!) One of the many traditions of Carnaval is spraying espuma (foam) at each other, and the tent that we were under to watch the parade was QUITE a mess!

La Batalla de Flores was a gorgeous parade, filled with dancers and floats, as well as groups of important Colombian musicians. Unfortunately, our view was partially blocked by the tent, but we still got to see most of the people passing by!

*Cue long train of pictures, because I took too many.*

We got hit as well!

After the parade, we headed to meet some of Emerique's friends, and ate dinner at a small local restaurant - an event which quickly (d)evolved into a foam-spraying, flour-throwing dance party!

From there, it was off to a street party. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get in, but luckily barranquilleros know how to make the most of any situation, and the party and dancing simply spilled out onto a different street!

Sunday, February 11th

Today, I was a bit more prepared with my Carnaval *look,* thanks to a little glitter from Jess and Charlie. (Yep, they're back!)

We decided to skip the parade today, and instead headed straight to the street party - this time we got into the official one, and it was even more fun than the previous night! Andrea joined us, and we danced our way through the night!

(Note the newly purchased Carnaval shirt - I tried!)

So much flour...

Andrea had heard about a concert happening that night, so we decided to check it out!

There was electronic, folk, and reggae music, and we had a blast!

The most exciting part, however was when Damian Marley came on - Bob Marley's son!

We didn't make it home until after 5 AM... 😳

Monday, February 12th

After sleeping in, I headed to the Gran Parada de Comparsas parade with Jess - this time with better seats! (I ordered a ticket online... It was a whole thing.) The costumes are even more brilliant up close, and we even got a few pictures with the dancers!

Exhausted from the night before, we decided to take it easy that afternoon and went to go see a movie with Charlie.

Tuesday, February 13th

Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras for New Orlineans!) was probably my favorite day in Barranquilla. The parade Kate (another Minca friend), Jess, and I went to today had less of a shiny feel to it, with a grittier (and funnier!) presentation. The parade today was called, "Joselito se va con las cenizas."

According to the Internet, "Barranquilla ends its parade-centered festivities with the Joselito Carnaval. Supposedly a former city coach driver whose only day of rest fell on a Tuesday and who, one particularly Tuesday, drank himself to death, Joselito represents the joys of the carnival which, unfortunately like the life of Joselito, must come to an end."

https://www.donquijote.org/colombian-culture/holidays/barranquilla-carnival/

This parade is celebrated by a series of skits, where Joselito has fun, dies, and is visited by many grieving women, who are usually men dressed up as brides, mothers, and whores.

Joselito is then followed by a grieving crowd, before stopping again to perform the skit for a fresh group of people.

Over the course of the parade, there are many variations on the skit, over and over again, and somehow each time got even more ridiculous! We were laughing the entire time!

There were lots of other characters too, including \240quite a few drag queens! In fact, the majority of men in the parade were dressed as women!

(Los sons de Negro that I mentioned before)

Carnaval royalty!

"Pero el carnaval es así, el mundo al revés." http://www.carnavalesbarranquilla.com/p/disfraces-del-carnaval-de-barranquilla_15.html?m=1

After the parade, we had a hankering for pancakes, so we dropped by the grocery store and celebrated pancake day/Mardi Gras in style!

Wednesday, February 14th

Ash Wedneaday/Valentine's Day, but for us, a slow day spent mostly at the mall before our 10pm night bus to Medellín...

...which didn't actually leave until 11:15!

Ah well, finally on the bus...

5
MedellΓ­n

Thursday, February 15th

Fifteen hours later...

After a surprisingly comfortable bus ride, we arrived in Medellín around 2pm, three hours after our scheduled arrival time, but we had expected that. The last few hours of the trip (when I was awake) were really gorgeous!

We groggily made our way to our respective hostels, and after resting a bit, headed out for a DELICIOUS pizza dinner at Cafe Zorba, accompanied by Jonas, a Dutch guy from my hostel.

The view from my hostel!

We hung out for a bit at Casa Kiwi, my hostel, before turning in early.

Friday, February 16th

Medellín is an absolutely gorgeous city, and after a little over 24 hours here, I'm already in love with it. The city is nestled in a valley between soaring deep green mountains, with clay-red housed climbing the slopes. Once the murder capitol of the world (don't freak out, Mom!), Medellín is now considered the tenth most modern city in the world, with a spanking new metro and cable cars, and greenery and public spaces around every corner. I have yet to feel unsafe here, and the people have been unbelievably friendly! In fact, there is an American girl in my hostel who is planning on moving here... (Don't freak out, Mom!)

We decided to start our first full day in Medellín by trying out the spanking new metro and cable cars, and were treated to an unexpected tour of the city from the window!

The metrocable was especially fun!

Some of the roofs were painted with animals!

As the houses began to peter out, we transferred to a second set of cable cars, and began to climb into the jungle...

Some of the English \240translations are pretty funny here!

After about a half hour, we arrived at Parque Arví, a nature preserve and archeological site just on the other side of the mountains.

We headed out on a short hike to a waterfall, and met some Colombians along the way, Jenny and Sonia, who were visiting Medellín for the day. They were incredibly friendly, but had to head out after a bit to try to catch everything in one day!

Then it was back on the cable cars - next stop, botanical \240gardens!

(Can you tell I liked the cable cars??)

El Jardín Botánico de Medellín was gorgeous and incredibly peaceful for its location in the middle of the city!

See the spider?

After the gardens, we had a quick dinner and parted with Jonas, while the rest of us went to see Black Panther! (Highly recommend it!!)

Obligatory McFlurry photo - Jess insisted!

The city is just as gorgeous at night...

...and this is my view as I write this on the hostel's terrace! Off to bed now, early morning tomorrow!

Another gorgeous day in Medellín...

Today, Jess, Charlie, and I took the free walking tour, which was an incredible education! Our tour guide, Carolina, gave us an honest, realistic history of the city (and the country), and didn't sugarcoat the details, as the "tourist" version of history often does.

We started at the old train station, then worked our way around downtown.

Paisas (people who live in Medellín) are very proud of their heritage, and there are monuments and art all around the city dedicated to their history, including this enormous one below.

Carolina talked a lot about Medellín's traumatic history, and the ways in which the city has moved past it. There were several examples of places of trauma being converted into beautiful spaces, including the Square of Lights below. Once a market that had burned down and was used by homeless people and drug addicts for a makeshift home, the city has since implemented public housing and changed the square into a beautifu, safe public place. At night, the white poles light up!

El Palacio Nacional - now a mall, although it has been well-preserved

Veracruz Church, where we stopped for a snack, including fresh-squeezed orange juice!

Fernando Botero, native to Medellín, has a huge presence in the city, and his art can be seen everywhere, including in the Botero Square, where many of his statues are on display.

Palacio de la Cultura - started by a Belgium architect, who abandoned the project. The city of Medellín finished the project, though clearly not with the original intention!

We finished in San Antonio Park, where Pájaro de la Paz is located. This was perhaps the most powerful part of the tour. In 1995, a bomb was planted at the plaza during a large concert, killing 22 people, and injuring a hundred more. The bomb destroyed a statute by Botero (the bird on the left). Rather than throw away the damaged statue, Botero insisted on keeping it and creating a new bird, el Pájaro de Paz (On the right). They have become a dedication to the victims of the bomb, as well as a testament to hope and strength, and the importance of memory.

Us with our tour guide, Carolina

After the tour, we returned to Botero Square and headed to El Museo de Antioquia, where we got to see a multitude of Colombian art, include an entire Flore dedicated to Botero.

Botero's depictions of Pablo Escobar's death. Escobar understandably remains an extremely taboo subject in the city, as well as the country.

I'm so original ;)

More art dedicated to the changes in Medellín.

After that, I headed home on the metro and am about to take a nap before going dancing tonight!

6
Cra. 6 #7-2 a 7-84, Salento, QuindΓ­o, Colombia

After saying goodbye to Jess and Charlie last night, I got on a bus to Salento (in the coffee region) in the afternoon! Supposedly a 6.5 hour bus, I arrived in Salento ten hours later, but at this point, I tend to expect that anyway, and the bus and bus station were really nice!.

Plus, the drive was absolutely breathtaking...

On the bus ride there, I met a really interesting local and we talked about politics, sociology, and history for hours. (What a fascinating country!!)

I also made a new friend, Yajaira, who happens to be staying at the same hostel as me!

After "dinner" (snacks from the only store still open), Yajaira and I chatted for awhile downtown, then headed back so I could Skype with my parents and take this super flattering screenshot!

Buenas...

Salento is a quaint town with beautiful painted houses lining every avenue and a rich artesanal culture of art, jewelry, and clothing.

After breakfast, Yajaira and I hiked to El Ocaso, an organic coffee farm an hour's walk from town.

However, we took much longer because we kept stopping for pictures!

Our first glimpse of coffee plants

When we arrived we had a latte at the local café.

Below is the life span of a coffee plant.

We got to pick out own beans...

...and grind them!

This dog followed us for most of the tour!

Drying after picking out the best beans

Roasting

Grinding

Pouring

Drinking!

After the tour, we enjoyed an hour more at the gorgeous finca

Later, we took a jeep back to Salento for lunch, the traditional bandeja paisa - vegetarian style!

Next, we wandered down the artesanal street, then up the hill to watch the sunset over the city.

Overall, it was possibly my best day in Colombia so far!

Our second day in Salento was unfortunately our last. Nonetheless, we made the most of it!

In the morning, Yajaira and I headed to the Valle de Cocora for a six hour hike!

I was feeling a bit sick, and the hike was exhausting, but SO worth it!!

We enjoyed a bowl of hot chocolate at the top of the mountain, before heading down into the Valle de Cocora.

!!!!

Almost immediately after we made it back to town for lunch, it began to downpour!

Although we had to trudge there in the rain (exhausted from hiking!), we eventually made it to the bus to Armenia, and from there to Cali! (Albeit several hours later than expected...)

7
Cali

Wednesday was a bit of a slow day, with some unintended adventures along the way...

I was still feeling a little sick, so I slept in and we left for brrunch in the neighborhood of San Antonio around noon (homemade bread, Nutella, fresas, bananos, café, and a smoothie! A picture would have made you too jealous...)

After brunch, we thought we'd drop by the Museo de Arte Público to see some murals.

The Google Maps photo looked like this...

...but when we got there it was not quite what we were expecting! The people working there explained to us that the entire city was actually the museum of public art. They handed is a map and sent us back the way we came. 😂

A bit worn out by our odd adventure, we decided to stop for ice cream at a place that was highly recommended by guide books and travelers alike, The Butterfly Tongue. They had varying flavors, from pepper to avocado to tomato to maracuyá to rum and raisins!

Yajaira's and my desserts 😋🍦

Did I mention we bought shoes in Salento?

After that, we were ready to check out some street art!

The quality of these photos isn't great, but the message is nice!

We finished the afternoon at Parque del Gato del Río, a big attraction in Cali, although no one is quite sure what the significance of the cats are... Perhaps all the strays?

We had planned on going salsa dancing, but neither of us were really up to it, which I rather regret... However, we did take a salsa lesson, so *technically* I can say I salsa danced in Cali! Ah well, Perú is supposed to have pretty decent salsa dancing too!

Like in Salento, day 2 in Cali would be my last.

We decided to take the walking tour, which unfortunately didn't quite live up to the one in Medellín. Nonetheless, I learned a bit about salsa, including about Grupo Niche, started by Jairo Varela.

He wrote the song with the line, “Cali es Cali, lo demás es loma," a favorite among residents of Cali.

See if you can figure out who this public statue is dedicated to...

One perk of the tour was when we stopped for lulada, a local drink made of the sour fruit, lulo. (Tastes better than it looks!)

Got to see even more public art...

Statue dedicated to la reina de Cali, a local singer, who believed she was a queen after winning a song competition, according to our guide.

Following the tour, we headed to the local market (a longer walk than anticipated!), where we had lunch as well.

That afternoon, I took a nap in a hammock at the hostel, and spent the afternoon relaxing in preparation for my night bus to Ipiales, a Colombian border town.

8
Las Lajas

After taking a night bus that left at 7pm and arrived at 6:30 the next morning, I arrived groggy and a bit disoriented in Ipiales. I met a few fellow travelers on the bus, and we decided to cross the border together.

But first, the famous Las Lajas church! Founded after a local man said he saw the Virgin Mary in the mountainside, the church is a wonder to behold.

I look more awake than I am!

Plaques thanking the Virgin for granting them miracles

Hard to tell, but the church is built directly into the cliff face!

Decker, Petra, Frederica, and me - people I met on the bus!

This angel is playing the saxophone!

Apparently, the border has been totally crazy cool passing into Ecuador lately, due to Venezuelans fleeing their country. There were certainly many Venezuelan people in line to cross, but the time it took was nothing like the twelve hours worst case scenario that I had heard from some people. Overall, it took us under 3 hours to cross the border, partially because our European and North American passports granted us enormous privilege and even allowed us to cut the line more than once. Borders have a way of highlighting inequalities, and today was no exception.

If you do not know what is going on in Venezuela, please read the following article: http://www.aljazeera.com/amp/indepth/features/2017/04/venezuela-happening-170412114045595.html

Now I am on a bus to Quito, where I will be joined by a *special guest* tonight...

Later...

Quito!!!

Wooooo Lexi is joining me for ten days in Ecuador!!!

Our first stop was the Basilica del Voto Nacuonal, a gorgeous cathedral in Quito Old Town, which was started in 1892 and consecrated in 1988, although it was never officially finished.

After looking at the stained glass inside the Basilica, we climbed the towers (up some veeeeery steep stairs) to see some unbelievable views of the city.

After the Basilica, we wandered around Old Town Quito.

All this for $2.75 each!

We bought ice cream on the way back to View Secret Garden Hostel, which has an unbelievable view.

Day 2 in Quito was another cloudy one! We quickly discovered that the weather changes in a split second on the equator, since the sun is so strong here. One second it's freezing and windy, and the next, the clouds blow away and we find ourselves baking in the sun.

However, that worked in our favor on the TelefériQo, Quitooks \240cable car to the top of a mountain that looks over the city. Although the day was cloudy, the clouds soon cleared enough that we had geat views as we hiked at the top.

After the TelefériQo, we took a taxi to Mitad del Mundo, aka THE EQUATOR!!

Apparently, the actual equator is a bit north of the monument, since it was built before the GPS was invented, so we got two versions of cheesy tourist pictures - you can decide which equator to *believe*!

In case it wasn't obvious, we're the blue dot!

Yeah this pic was not our best...

Get it?

Also there were LLAMAS!!!!

We also got interviewed by two separate groups of students taking English classes, since apparently they often go to Mitad del Mundo in search of gringo tourists to practice their English with! They were kind enough to pose for a picture after the interview.

Espumías - not ice cream, NOT cold...

...and not something we're keen to get again soon.

Remember how I said the sun was strong in the equator? Poor Lexi got the brunt of it...

We finished our night with an incredible dinner with a view of the city! The main course was locro de papa, an Ecuadorian soup made of potatoes, cheese, and avocado - what more do you want??

Ready to get out of the city and into nature, we booked two nights at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, the sister hostel to where we were staying in Quito, located near Cotopaxi National Park! It was a bit pricey for a backpacker's budget, but as it turned out, entirely worth it!!

Bye, Quito!

Oh also, I had a stowaway in my luggage.... It's time I introduced Walter the Farting Dog! (Sigh... It's an inside joke.)

Anywayyyy...

This was our first glance of Cotopaxi, one of the world's tallest volcanoes, and the second highest peak in Ecuador! For more information on this fascinating giant, visit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotopaxi

We stayed in "The Playhouse," a tiny house with a bare-bones downstairs and a glorified ladder to the "second floor," where the double bed took up most of the floor space!

We loved it.

After lunch and an orientation that made us feel like we were at summer camp for adults, we took a hike to go see some beautiful waterfalls!

The water was frigid, but I have no regrets!!

The full crew :)

Afterwards, we met some llamas and horses!!

Llamas are truly splendid creatures, and they know it.

We spent the evening on the enormous hammock and in the jacuzzi.

The fire was nice too.

Our first morning in Cotopaxi dawned bright and beautiful. The picture below was the first thing I saw when I woke up. (Thanks to some gentle prodding from Lexi!)

The dogs were still asleep when we came in for breakfast - they hike every day!

Cotopaxi is unbelievably majestic...

...as is this dog! (Photo cred Lexi)

As we started our hike up Pasachoa, the clouds began to descend, which meant we couldn't see quite as much, but it made the landscape more dramatic!

Us with our new friend Leslie, from France!

Made it to the summit!! Though we were inside a cloud...

Jolie was our guide, and she was awesome to hang out with!

See if you can find us...

After our hike, the rest of the afternoon was spent relaxinggg!

Ecuadorian Gothic

For our last activity in Cotopaxi, we decided to go horseback riding! A group of us girls had sort of unofficially formed at the hostel so we all went together.

Me, Kalia, Jennifer, Lexi, Leslie, and Makayla

Lexi was not so sure about the horses, but was excited to give it a shot! In fact, the excursion was her idea.

Alas, it turned out to not be quite to her \240liking... (That may be an understatement! 😬)

I, however, had a GRAND time!

The whole gang

The landscape was a misty journey into an otherworldly landscape, where wild horses ran free amidst deep canyons, rolling hills, and open fields dotted with enormous boulders spewed from Cotopaxi when it erupted 140 years ago. (It erupted most recently in 2015, and the ash forced Quito to shut down its airport!)

Although we couldn't see the mountain itself, like the previous day, the low-hanging clouds contributed to the eerily beautiful landscape.

Valle de Rocas

Thanks, Capulí!

One final picture with our guide, Omar

After leaving the Secret Garden, we headed to Latacunga, a nearby town that is a home base for many hikers and backpackers. Always reassuring when this evacuation sign greets you as you enter a city!

We thought we had seen the last of Cotopaxi, but on our way to the indigenous market in Saquisilí, we caught sight of it again from our bus!

The market was absolutely incredible. There we found fruits, vegetables, meat (including a LOT of dead chickens), clothing, regional food, textiles, baskets, people offering mending/sewing services, grains, and just about every odd and end you could imagine. According to one source, the market has existed since before the Spaniards arrived, and it is a place for many indigenous groups to meet and exchange culture and goods.

Many if not most of the vendors were dressed in traditional indigenous clothing, which for women included a fedora, braided hair, a poncho, a pleated skirt, tights, and sensible high heeled shoes. Many of the men also wore fedoras and ponchos, although this seemed to be more prevalent in the older generation, whereas women of all ages wore traditional garb. I was advised not to take pictures of the people, since it is considered impolite if not downright offensive to do so. Instead, I snapped a few "drive-by" pictures of some of the wares.

For more information on the market, visit: http://www.wildland.com/feature/Saquisili_Market.aspx

To find out more about indigenous clothing, check out: http://www.ecuador.com/dress/

Lexi and I found ourselves on an unofficial food tour, as we sampled just about every vegetarian street food we could find, including fried masa con queso, corn bread, soup, fruit juice, ice cream, \240fruit, and assorted candies.

Before heading back to the hostel, we stopped at Postres, Pasteles, Cake, a cake shop that turned out to be a favorite after we tried the durazno cake.

Though we liked the hostel, I have to say the steps down to our room were a bit dungeon-like.

In the afternoon, after a nap, we decided to try the fruits we had bought (literally anything we did get immediately recognize!)

Zero regrets!!

The rest of the day was relaxed, as we wandered around Latacunga and got Mexican food for dinner! (Before returning to the cake shop!)

On Friday, we took a bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa to see the famous laguna in the crater of an extinct volcano.

The road there had some interesting views, including statues celebrating the local indigenous communities and roof dogs (yes, more than one!)

The lagoon itself was absolutely breathtaking. We spent much of the day hiking around the lake, including a steep climb down to it (and a steeper climb up!) Many backpackers spend 3-5 days \240hiking the "Quilotoa Loop" in and around the lagoon, which we might have done if we had more time, but given our schedule, we enjoyed spending much of the day just at the crater.

Lexi and I really, really like the alpaca sweaters sold in just about every tourist trap around. Even when we stopped for hot chocolate, they were taunting us from the shop window next door. We've already bought two. Three seems excessive.

When we continued our walk, it was raining, and Lexi didn't bring a rain jacket. Luckily I had a super glamorous poncho in my bag that she wore instead. (Thanks, Nana!)

By the time we reached the bottom of the lagoon, the rain was clearing out.

Annnd on the way up, we did about the most touristy thing ever and paid to take a picture with a llama. I refuse to apologize for my actions, because this picture is great.

Remember Postres, Pasteles, Cake? Yeah, we went there three times in 24 hours.

No regrets. 🍰

That evening, we caught a bus and headed to Baños!

Saturday was our first full day in Baños! We began the day by visiting Pailón del Diablo, a waterfall named so because the rocks on the cliff look like the face of the devil! Our visit included a rock tunnel that led to a spot behind the waterfall, as well as several suspension bridges with amazing views, and a "splash zone" near the cascade!

Flashback

In the tunnel

You can sort of see the face in my hand...

Wet rat selfie

A small artisan market in Baños

After the waterfall (and a nap!) we headed to the hot springs a few blocks from our hostel. We decided not to bring our phones because we weren't sure there would be lockers, a decision that we regretted, because we missed several good photo ops. First of all, our outfits were ridiculous because we were required to wear shower caps. (Imagine us looking like dorky 1950's synchronized swimmers.) The baths themselves were extremely crowded. We visited the "medium" pool first, but the water was tepid, and there were a lot of kids in the pool making the temperature of the water a bit questionable, given kids' lack of bladder control... We therefore moved on to the lower pools, which included two icy cold pools and one that felt hot enough to boil lobsters! It was difficult to adjust to at first, but once in the water, it was very relaxing - until you felt like you're insides were cooking, at which point we would get out if the water and submerge ourselves in the icy pools, then repeat the process again. It sounds painful, but it was actually very nice, once you got in the rhythm of it! We left the baths invigorated and ready for dinner.

As we we searching for a pizza place, the second great tragedy of leaving our phones at home happened. Honestly, this one is so bizarre, I'm not even sure how to describe it. Essentially, we were walking along the sidewalk, minding our own business, when a dinosaur train passed us by. (Imagine an eight-car-long roller coaster-like vehicle painted like a spotted green dinosaur driving around the streets of the town, for no discernible reason.) Obviously, we had to follow it, and the moment it stopped, we hopped on, along with quite a few curious passersby's. The train took us on a crazy tour through town, while we laughed at the ridiculousness of it all the while.

After that, we finally got our pizza dinner. What a night!

Sunday we booked a tour with Geotours (highly recommend if you're ever in Baños!) to go whitewater rafting!

I have to admit, when we first got in, after the first rapid, I had the feeling that I was in over my head (so to say!) However, our team worked together well, and our guide was incredible, so we soon got the hang of it, and I had a blast! Please enjoy the following images of tiny people that are difficult to distinguish. 😉 (I'm the one in the pinkish helmet on the back right of the boat! Lexi is the blue helmet on the back left.)

Wet rat selfie #2

After rafting, we got batidos (aka potatoes or Moothies - inside joke) from a local vendor, then hopped on another bus...

...with incredible views...

...to LA Casa del Árbol, aka the swing at the edge of the world!!

Lexi went first

I don't know if anyone else ever gets this feeling, but when I am hiking a mountain or at a great viewpoint and I am looking out at the wide expanse of the world, I often get this incredible urge to fly. All I want to do is soar through the clouds over the mountains like a bird. Well, today I finally got to! There are really very few feelings as incredible as swinging over the edge of a cliff and experiencing a brief moment of flight.

Plus, the pictures are dope.

Lexi

Me

The view wasn't half bad either!

After the swing, it was time to head back to Quito for Lexi's last day tomorrow. 😢

Monday, March 5th

Lexi's last day, wahhhh!!!

We spent most of the day wandering aimlessly around Old Town Quito, like we did the first day. There was a small political protest that was going on, which we were curious about, but we decided not to stick around, since there was a pretty large police presence, since Monday was changing of the guards day.

Afterwards, we had another batido before heading to El Mercado Central.

El Mercado Central is a two story building filled with tiny food and produce shops, with lots of beautiful fruit and a little too much raw meat for my taste.

After that, we headed to El Mercado Artesanal, a collection of shops with blankets, sweaters, art, jewelery, and other gorgeous things, mostly run by indigenous vendors. Although the market was beautiful, I was starting to feel lightheaded, and thinking I might have altitude sickness, I headed home in a taxi, while Lexi stayed to look around.

As it turned out, it wasn't altitude sickness, but my old friend food poisoning, probably brought on by the raw tomatoes I'd had earlier. Lexi decided to change rooms, because she couldn't afford to get sick, which turned out to be a good decision. Around 10:30pm, after five hours of puking and spending time in the bathroom, I decided I really needed to see a doctor.

Luckily, the hostel was about a block away from the hospital, and the front desk staff were kind enough to walk me there, hence beginning my second experience with socialized medicine in South America. After checking in at the front desk, I was immediately seen by a doctor, then sent to another clinic to get medicine. I was also seen immediately there, and was given packets to rehydrate and medicine to take away the pain. In all, the whole process took less than an hour and a half, before I was back in bed again. And like the yellow fever vaccine, totally free. Having done something similar in the states when a friend got sick a couple years ago, that experience would have cost me much more time and hundreds of dollars in the US.

Anyway, lesson learned. No more raw vegetables for me.

Tuesday, March 6th

As you might imagine, the next day I took it easy, and spent most of my time in the hostel, which is honestly more like a hotel, since I thankfully have had a room to myself through this whole process!

Wednesday, March 7th - Saturday, March 10th

As it turned out, I had a bacterial infection and was out of commission longer than I had originally anticipated. However, I did get a FEW decent pictures, and luckily my hostel was really wonderful, and I had a private room the entire time. (If you're ever traveling in Quito, check out L'Auberge Inn!) And, after a couple days on antibiotics, I finally took the nightbus to Cuenca on Saturday.

*Cue "On the Road Again" soundtrack*

Hi all! Just wanted to let you know that I haven't forgotten about the blog, but the app I've been using unfortunately hasn't been working. I'm still writing in my notes, and hopefully will find another way to publish soon!! Thanks for understanding!