It always baffles me that you can cross an imaginary line that is a border between 2 countries and the whole atmosphere, attitude and appearance of the people, and landscape dramatically changes.
This has been our experience of Columbia to date.
Almost immediately when we crossed the border, we found the people to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. We joked that smiling and being happy must be a national law.
There are a lot of police checkpoints and a large military presence in the country. We have been stopped many times, but it has mostly been because the police offices or soldiers wanted to have a chat or check out our vehicles. Others would give us the thumbs up and sometimes a cheer as we drove past.
After the border formalities, and obtaining car insurance we headed for Laguna Cocha, Columbia’s largest lake.
It was dark as we drove in, so we decided to head to a free camp marked on ioverlander. It was not quite what we expected.
The campsite was not a wild camp, but simply a small pullout off the main street, where taxi's and cars parked. There was no privacy, but we there was no other option as the area was surrounded by water and it was late at night. So we created a little privacy by the car positioning, and set up to cook dinner.
The locals made the experience interesting and actually enjoyable. One restaurant owner opened his bathroom to us, and bragged to his friends as they passed that he was talking with people from Holland and Australia. The local children gathered around and asked us multiple questions about our situation and about every item of ours that they saw. They were fascinated.
The following morning we experienced the local life first hand. The boats started early taking people throughout the lake, taxis began ferrying people and school children to the next village. The restaurants and homes were built literally on the water. They were colorful and well kept. We had further discussions with the locals as we ate breakfast.
Seeking a more private location for another night at the lake, we headed to another restaurant further around the lake called El Jardin. It had more privacy, the gardens and views were spectacular and keira had a playground. We got to observe cows being milked the next morning.
We headed into Pasto the nearest big town to use an ATM as we had only a small amont of Columbian currency and to restock our supplies. We were pleasanty surprised at how cheap Columbia is.
The scenery from Laguna Cocha to our next destination San Agustin was really spectacular. We were pleased to see so much untouched wilderness. The roads were again narrow which made for an interesting drive.
It was too far to make San Agustin in one day, so we had to seek out another camp. We found the only flat place next to a school and basketball court. The locals gave approval for us to stay. Keira played ball games with the local kids, and we unanswered the inquisitive questions of the locals.
From there it was on to San Agustin, with another interesting drive.
Quito, is Ecuador's capital city. It is located high in the Andean foothills at an altitude of 2,850m. Constructed on the foundations of an ancient Incan city, it’s known for its Spanish colonial buildings dating back more than 500 years.
For us, Quito was about car repairs. We had been recommended a mechanic by some fellow overlanders, and we were not disappointed, however it was a little more costly than first expected. Hopefully these repairs will see us safely back to the USA.
Luckily we could stay in our vehicles at the workshop to offset costs.
On our last day there, Keira looked down at her once pink crocs (shoes), and commented that they were now black. I guess that is what happens when you live in a parking lot of a mechanics for a few days!!
During our stay in Quito, Els, Keira and I ventured into the old town by bus for a visit. The old town was as I remembered, very clean, relaxed with beautiful architecture.
The Metropolitan cathedral in Quito is a neo-gothic basilica with a magnificent design. We climbed the stairs and walked across a narrow bridge in the roof of the church to then climb to the upper towers. The climb was via steep and narrow steps and was quite scarey. The view from the top was incredible.
Our time in Quito was nice, however not being big city people we were glad to move on. See Northern Ecuador for our travels post Quito.
The rainy weather in Banos sent us heading back East into the Orient or Amazonian region in search of warmth and dry weather. We found it in the Amazonian jungle near Tena on the Rio Napo.
We camped for one night near a canoe launch site by a river in the jungle. It certainly was warm and came equip with all the wonderful and not so wonderful tropical bugs. We spent an afternoon lazing under the trees watching the fast flowing river and the riverboats as they took passengers back and forth to the many jungle lodges.
The following day we took a riverboat to an animal sanctuary up river. The boat ride was fun, and the sanctuary very interesting.
The sanctuary was established to take in injured animals, rehabilitate them and re-introduce then to the wild again. The sanctuary has bought up a large amount of the jungle to protect it. They have had many successful re-introductions. However a group of squirrel monkeys and a couple of spider monkeys that they took to the far end of the park to release, found their way back and now live in the trees around the sanctuary. Another part of the program is to provide a haven for animals that cannot survive in the jungle. A large amount of these animals were kept illegally as pets. People have the pets when young thinking they are cute but when they grow and their natural instincts kick in, the owners realize it is no longer a good idea. Some of the animals have been found in the hands of poachers. On the international market the animals are seen as being exotic and so they can fetch a big price. Unfortunately a lot of the birds have had their wings broken and can no longer fly. The sanctuary provides them with a safe home.
Amongst the animals there, are: turtles, caiman, ocelots, monkeys, tamarinds, peccaries, an anaconda, tadpoles, coatis and all sorts of birds.
Keira was so enthusiastic, telling the guide all the information she knew about bugs, and the birds and animals she had encountered. It was a good experience.
We headed a little north of Tena, and found a great campsite by the fork of 2 rivers. We paid the locals 2.50 per night to stay there. It was an amazing location. We were able to swim in the river, and Keira got to play with the local kids. Mike and Keira took the opportunity to build a boat from local materials. I took the chance to make a new fly door for our tent, as our zip had broken and we needed to create protection against our tropical neighbors.
Our next stop was some hot springs at Jamanco. We camped in the parking lot and swam in the warm pools. Keira had a great time sliding down the slide into the water.
Photos from our river camp.
Keira and Mike's boat made from natural materials.
We headed north from there, bypassing Quito to head to Otavalo. We camped on a soccer field below the Peguche waterfall. Keira and I explored the area, and then we visited the market the next day. The market was OK, but the quality of the goods in comparison to 18 years ago was not so impressive. We bought a few scarves and a small doll for Keira.
Our plan was to head to Quito on the Monday to visit a mechanic for some car checks and repairs. So we decide to make one more stop outside of Quito. We chose a destination near the Pululahua crater. The drive there was very pretty, however the crater, said to be one of the worlds largest volcanic craters, was nothing special. It was really hard to find a campsite as we were only ~ 35 kms from Quito. We chose a public park as a last resort. We had partially set up and eaten our dinner when the security guards asked us to move on. So we quickly did our dishes and packed up, glad we had not fully unpacked and headed back to a not so ideal spot we had seen earlier. Not perfect but safe and good for one night.
The following day we headed into Quito for car repairs. I have created a separate blog on Quito, which I will post soon.
Post Quito we headed north to Ibarra, our final stop in Ecuador before crossing into Columbia. We had heard of a great overland site called Finca Sommerwind, run by a German couple. We were looking forward to a chance to stop, complete washing, some car cleaning and some basic repairs, plus some relaxing. And we found it, 5 nights and we were able to achieve the above, plus a visit to the town to explore and get some supplies.
We ended up spending more time in Ecuador than we first intended to. We got to see some parts of Ecuador we had not previously seen, revisit some places and to spend some time with our friends Els and Gerret. We certainly were not disappointed in Ecuador. The people are friendly and helpful, the roads and conditions have improved, and the scenery was beautiful.
We decided the word for Ecuador was "nice".
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: calamine lotion for bug bites
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike-the orient/amazon jungle ; Keira- visiting the animal sanctuary; Riss- visiting the animal sanctuary
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-finding a campsite outside of Quito; Keira- bug bites ; Riss- dealing with bug bites
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- our meals, Keira- blue flavored popsicles; Riss- cooked plantains
BEST CAMPING SPOT: by river in amazon
Ecuador is one of the 4 countries we had previously visited 18 years ago as backpackers. Next to Bolivia it was our second favorite country. It is where we studied Spanish, where we met and travelled with our friends Stewart and Andrea, and a place of many adventures especially since El Nino had destroyed a vast number of roads.
Going back to a place that you previously loved can often bring a few disappointments, as we had experienced in Bolivia. We were interested to see how we would find Ecuador on this our second visit.
Our experience entering the country near Zumba was positive, as the border officials were very friendly. We actually camped near the river, which was the border between Peru and Ecuador. The local people there were very friendly too. During the night I awoke to 3 men heading into the river, with them not returning and then later a different man waded out of the river with an inner tube. MMMMM, a midnight swim or border jumping??
The major highlight of Southern Ecuador was actually the scenery we drove through on a daily basis, from high mountain vistas to thicker forests. We moved from campsite to campsite taking in the sites, and interacting with the local people.
Driving in your own vehicle makes you more in touch with your environment and in touch with the people you encounter. Whilst driving through a small town we came across a young man lying on the side of the road obviously injured. Several local people were trying to help. There was no question or hesitation, we immediately stopped and offered our assistance. Mike used his first responder training and our first aid kit to complete an assessment and to stop the bleeding from a face wound. We then assisted the family to get him into a moto taxi to continue on to the hospital, suspecting a broken jaw and a concussion. We assisted and then continued on our way, never knowing the outcome, but glad we were able to help.
Vilcabamba, the area known for the longevity of its residents was markedly different than our first visit. A lot of expats have moved to the area, bringing with them better services and better infrastructure. This is great for visitors and locals however for us it felt like Vilcabamba had lost some of its mystic and authenticity. We did however take advantage of the French bakery!
Heading north, we camped for 2 nights in the Podocarpus Parque, north of Loja. The park is said to be home to bears, foxes and an abundance of wildlife. We saw a myriad of birds and one dead possum. We did enjoy a relaxing day there, and did a couple of short hikes.
Our next stop was at a campsite near a small town of Ona. Being in a mountainous region, it was hard to find a flat place to camp. From the main road we spotted an opening near a church down a dirt road. We stopped to ask some people tending a garden if we could camp for one night. They were unsure at first but when they spotted we were a family they agreed it would be OK. So we camped the night on the soccer field by the church. Through talking to the few people who came out to speak, we found out it was an extended family that owned the whole area and even ran the church. The oldest woman of the clan, all of 4 foot tall, greeted us with hugs and kisses, telling us her abuelas (grandparents) use to live in the house on the property that has only one wall left standing. She was lovely and so welcoming. One of the little girls, shy at first brought us a big bunch of bananas as a gift. As we left in the morning, shouting out our thanks, many people waved from the fields. It was one of those unexpected wonderful encounters of travelling.
We continued moving north along the main highway 35 to Cuenca. We stopped for supplies and Internet and then decided to check out a camping spot noted on ioverlander. It was at a Hosteria Caballos Campana that was also a horse ranch. The setting was amazing. Cuenca itself had a quaint downtown with nice churches, a beautiful plaza and a very tranquil atmosphere.
HOSTERIA CABALLOS CAMPANA
MIKE AND KEIRA COLLECTED NATURAL PLANTS AND FLOWERS TO MAKE PAINT
CHURCHES IN CUENCA
We decided to head off the main road and into the Orient or jungle areas of Amazonian Ecuador. The scenery was beautiful, with dense lush green vegetation, and finally some warm weather. We found a spot by the river to camp for two nights. We needed a mosquito net to protect against the bugs. Waking in the morning we heard beautiful birds singing, and saw mist rising from the valley floor. Keira gives credit to the water fairies for lifting the mist.
I was exhausted that day, so I stayed in the tent reading with a small portable fan to keep cool. The constant change of location from altitude and cold to the heat of the jungle, and the many days of travel took its toll.
Our next destination was Banos, where we had previously studied Spanish and we spent ~ 3 weeks living there. We were interested to relive some of our fond memories. The road into Banos from the orient was the first major change. The once narrow, scary dirt road, which took 6 hours to transverse, is now a major paved road with numerous tunnels.
It was nice to stop for a while. I loved drinking my morning tea in the chair hammocks with a vista of the cloud forest, river below and of hummingbirds fluttering around. Being in a cloud forest there is a definite rainy season and we were visiting in the height of this season and with the additional affects of El Nino, yet again. We had a lot of rain during our stay.
We were fortunate that the rain ceased enough for us to visit the next village of Rio Verde for a festival, and to see the Pailon del Diablo waterfall ( in English: Cauldron of the devil). The festival was fun with a parade of local people on floats, dressed up as princesses, warriors, and modern dancers.
The Pailon del Diablo waterfall was impressive. We walked close to it on a walkway and ended up saturated from the force of the water.
THE RATHER BIZARRE PARADE, KEIRA WITH THE GIRLS ON ONE OF THE FLOATS.
We also visited Banos and were shocked at how much it had changed. The once quiet town is now 10 times the size, and is the center for adventure sports. We were able to find our Spanish school but the hostel we lived at, no longer existed.
We bought some of the local taffy to try, and Keira bought her weekend candy, a huge lollipop. She was happy.
I visited the local church and had a nostalgic memory of a Christmas midnight mass Stewart and I had attended 18 years ago. The experience had been moving as it was a real celebration, with people crowded in, seated on the floor, with children playing as the mass was said. The church had been filled with candles and the walls were black from years of smoke. Now the church has been painted but still the atmosphere remained.
Our impression so far of Ecuador has been positive. We noticed improvements in road conditions and in the quality of the homes. The current government from what we have heard and read has mixed reviews from the Ecuadorians and expats. They have changed legislation so that the most of the oil revenue is no longer in the hands of the USA. The government has set up many programs, including $5000 USD for first homeowners. They are encouraging the local people to buy Ecuadorian products and so have limited imports from the USA. This has made it difficult to get certain products here. We also heard that the government sold off rights to some of the Amazon jungle and its resources to the Chinese. This was done in return for the money to complete road construction in Ecuador. We have not had a chance to research any of this information in any depth, but this is what we have heard.
The people of Ecuador have been very friendly and very helpful.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: our umbrella/FIRST AID KIT
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- the campsite and talking to the locals at Ona; Keira- my big lollipop and playing with Ty and Jamie; Riss- hanging out in the hammock chairs at Pequeno Paraiso
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-trying to provide adequate first aid in difficult circumstances; Keira- pain in my legs from starting to use them again after being sick; Riss- trying to provide adequate first aid in difficult circumstances/itching from chigger bites
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- dinner every night; Keira-large lollipop; Riss- the yummy food that Els and Mike cook each night
BEST CAMPING SPOT: all our camping spots had something interesting about them.
It felt a little strange after Lesley and Phil returned home, we felt a little lost and it took us a while to get back in our groove.
Once Keira was feeling better we got back on the road, eager to get moving again.
We headed north to Chiclayo to visit the Sipan ruins and the museum there. We resumed camping again staying in the parking lot of the museum. It was ideal as Keira had some kids to play with; we had toilet access and could once again cook for ourselves.
The Sipan ruins were as we remembered, very simple. The museum is the main attraction with the artifacts, amazing masks, pottery and mummies excavated from the tombs.
The drive to Chiclayo took us along the coast, with the still misty grey weather, desert landscape and trash littering the roads, the beaches and the ocean. To us it was very depressing and the garbage was a symbol of how much damage humans can do with our waste. We did see a garbage dump, however instead of making the landfill inland it was close to the main road. There were garbage piles alongside the road where people had obviously just dumped their load, not caring, or not wanting to pay to dump it or being unable to pay.
In our western world, we are very privileged, we have governments who set up programs to take care of our waste, we have other options to avoid using plastic and we have recycling programs. When a country is poor there are no such programs. When people are struggling to fulfill there basic daily needs for food and shelter there is no energy and no resources left to take care of extraneous problems.
We decided to head inland to the mountains again with the hope of catching up with our Dutch friends Els and Gerret.
We made stops at Cajamarca and Celendin, opting to stay in hostels, as Keira was still not 100%.
We stopped along the way to visit the ventanillas de otuzco, the burial sites used by the Incas. They were quite fascinating.
We also made a stop at a church near Pollac recommended to us by a Dutch expat we met. The church is a work of art, it walls ceilings and outdoor walls completely covered in mosaic tiled religious pictures and religious symbols. It was really amazing and quite bizarre to find it in such a small town.
The drive took us via mountains at an altitude of 3000 to 4000 meters before plunging us down to the temperate zone of Balsas where we stopped for lunch and bought 15 juicy mangoes for $3 USD. We then climbed again.
We visited a museum just outside Leimebamba, which housed 300 mummies that had been found in the nearby mountains. It was a fascinating display and again brought mixed feelings on viewing them. Keira was clear about her emotions stated several times, “they freak me out.”
We were delighted to see the women in this area in traditional dress but this time with broader rimmed cowboy style hats with a tall conical shaped headpiece. The people we encountered were very friendly and interested in our travels.
The third night we made a run to a campsite south of Chacapoyas where we had arranged to meet Els and Gerret. We arrived a day earlier surprising them. It was really great to see them and share travel stories again.
We had a rest day and then headed to Kuelap ruins the following day. We had heard great things about Kuelap and many views that it was better than Machu Picchu.
The ~30 km drive into Kuelap was via a very narrow dirt road that at times made the death road in Bolivia look like a Sunday drive. The road took us through many small villages where the locals stared at our vehicles and returned our waves somewhat timidly. Keira would hang out the window, shouting out “hola’ and waving. The old women would respond with “una hermosa bebe.” (A beautiful baby) We would witness a lot of head turning as Gerret and Els drove through and then the word “gringa” or “gringos”. (Woman foreigner or foreigners).
We camped once again in a car park at the ruins. Not bad as we had an amazing view over the valley and of the ruins themselves.
We were indeed blown away by the Kuelap ruins themselves and agreed with the opinions that we had previously heard; the ruins do rival Machu Picchu.
Kuelap was constructed between AD 900 and 1100. It was a pre-Inca citadel used by dignitaries and was thought to be an administrative center. People were brought in from the outer communities to work on the construction. It was once a thriving community with thatched roofed buildings and high walls containing the city.
Today it looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. The buildings and structures were in partial ruin with jungle vines and trees encroaching and threatening to engulf the remains. This adds to the mystery of the site and the feeling of its authenticity.
Unfortunately progress is going to take its toll on the site, as a cable car is going to be built for easy access from the parking lot to the site itself. We were really disturbed by this, as the mystery and the vista of the site will be destroyed.
Our next stop again took us through small villages on winding, narrow roads. This time it was to visit Karajia. This site has 4 statues positioned in a cave outcrop in a mountainside of a valley. It was a burial site with little else known about it. The statues were really cool to see.
Camping this time was in a grass area in the town itself. We quickly became the talk of the town. As Els and Mike prepared dinner they were surrounded by local women, men and children vying for position to watch their every move.
Keira had an amazing experience playing with the local children and their pigs. Gerret and I braved the masses for a while but then took refuge inside their vehicle.
The following day we said our goodbyes to the locals. Keira really enjoyed playing with the local children.
After a grocery restock in Chamayo, we searched for a campsite, finding an ideal location near the river and a small village surrounded by rice paddies and crops. We were now once again in a tropical region, and the warm weather was wonderful. A woman from the village sold us bananas and we chatted to locals from Chamayo who came to the river to swim. Keira played with some of the children and hung out by the river with their family.
Having not showered for about 5 days, Keira and Mike took to the river to wash. I settled for a bucket hair wash.
The next day we said goodbye to Peru and crossed the border into Ecuador. This took some time as our entry paperwork for the vehicle from when we entered Peru ~ 2 months was incorrect. We were relieved when the border guards sorted it out and we could be on our way.
Lasting impressions of Peru: ruins, pleasant people, varying landscapes, misty and grey coastline, desert and unfortunately garbage.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: cooking stove to cook our own meals
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- seeing the ruins at Kuelap; Keira- playing with the kids at Karija and their pigs/riding the horse; Riss- Kuelap ruins
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-cooking with a gang of locals watching; Keira- walking the long distances at the ruins when my legs were still weal- Mum and Dad carried me; Riss- going from hot to cold- our bodies had no time to adjust.
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- mangoes, they were delicious, Keira- mangoes and drinking coconuts; Riss- mangoes and coconuts
BEST CAMPING SPOT: river spot near village and rice paddies
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.