This week started off in the Southern Colombian town of Popayan. With colonial architecture, surrounding hillsides, and adobe roofs as far as the eye can see, Popayan is a gorgeous setting. The first morning in town I climbed to the viewpoint of one of the hills near town and just took in the view as the sun began to warm up the atmosphere.
Popayan's streets are punctuated by relaxing open air squares, complete with parks, churches, and pedestrian friendly walking paths. Although the town has a lot to offer in the way of sightseeing, taking a slower pace and just strolling through the city streets is highly recommended as well.
After a relaxing few days in Popayan, I set off for the multi-day overland journey to Ecuador. Two straight days of busses through freezing mountain ranges and tiny desolate towns was interrupted just once to check out Las Lajas, an ornately decorated Roman Catholic Cathedral built into the side of a hillside near the Colombian border town of Ipiales. Rumor has it an apparition of the Virgin Mary was sighted there in 1754, serving as the inspiration for the church's location and the pilgrimage of thousands every year to worship and pray for miracles. After barely seeing anyone the whole day, I was shocked to find that on a random Tuesday afternoon there were hundreds of worshippers present attending mass.
10 Random Observations about Colombia
A few things I noticed throughout a month in the country. I'm not yet sure if these peculiarities will continue through South America or were specific to Colombia
- Salt and hot sauce are the table condiments. Never pepper.
- It seems like lawn mowers haven't really made it to Colombia yet. Yard work, even for large areas, is done wholly by weedwackers.
- The longest lines in cities are always outside the banks. Just before they open in the morning, it's not unusual to see a line over a block long just to cash a check.
- When the bus driver tells you it'll be a quick five minute stop, it'll be twenty minutes, minimum.
- Restaurant menus are pretty much pointless. They have food to order a la carte, but everyone just orders the menu del dia, a two course set meal which is always 2-3 times less expensive.
- Bread bread bread bread. Colombia loves bread. The most popular breakfast spots are panaderias, where you can find all different kinds of baked goods.
- Sugar sugar sugar sugar!! When ordering juice or coffee, you have to specifically order sin azucar as added sugar is the default.
- In addition to the regular nutritional contents, packaged foods have an additional label that specifically calls out the fat, sugar, and salt content in a user friendly, color-coded format.
- Cycling is second only to soccer in its popularity among Colombians; they tackle the country's ferocious mountains on road bikes decked out in spandex.
- There's an entire market of salesman who hop on to the busses, give everyone on board a candy bar, then dive into a prolonged, passionate speech about why their candy bar is the most delicious and best value. Once finished they go around again, and you can either return the candy bar or pony up for it. It's an interesting sales model.
After an uneventful border crossing into Ecuador, I hopped on another bus the following morning headed towards Quito, then caught a connection to the tiny tourist destination of Mindo, perched in the cloud forests of Ecaudor. The town itself is just a few streets and a couple of beautiful parks, but the area surrounding Mindo seems to have everything: waterfalls, rafting, ziplining, and world class bird-watching (if that's your thing).
Immediately upon arriving at La Casa de Cecilia, a group of tiny wooden houses built on the edge of a nearby stream, the sights, sounds, and smells of Mindo began to refresh my spirit. The sound of tumbling water permeates through the entire property, making for a calming undertone. On the porch are a set of hammocks, perfect for binge-reading a book and relaxing, taking in a few deep breaths of the crisp mountain air.
Strolling around town, it was easy to see why Mindo has recently become such a popular destination for travelers. The residents are incredibly friendly and eager to help with any questions you might have, and the children of Mindo roam the streets freely, playing soccer, riding bikes, and fighting with their siblings.
On Thursday morning I joined up with a couple of other travelers at the hostel, strapped on a life jacket and helmet, and went tubing down the raipds of the nearby Rio Mindo. The river is a little too strong to tackle solo and too rocky to actually sit in an inner tube, so the tour operators lash 7 of them together with rope and instruct people to hop in the middle of the contraption to barrel down the river steered only by our guide's big rubber boots. He was masterful at using the larger rocks to help us turn and squeezing through the tiny stretches of river.
On Friday, a ragtag group of six different solo travelers joined forces to explore the waterfalls of Mindo, a grouping a six falls situated within walking distance of each other in a nearby national park. The trek started with a 150 foot cable car ride across a forested canopy, during which we were treated to epic panoramas and dizzying views of the treetops and gushing rivers far below.
Throughout the hike we kept our eyes peeled for wildlife, but unsurprisingly the brash group of loud tourists was woefully inept at spotting animals. Aided by a local guide we were able to glimpse a Tucan chilling in the branches, but not any of the snakes or monkeys it was rumored we might run into along the way.
The group traversed steep and slippery paths of rocks, finally arriving at the first set of waterfalls; it was a great spot for an icy shower in the freezing, tumultuous current.
The afternoon was dotted with the pleasant cadence of hiking and swimming, hiking and swimming, exploring the river's natural watering holes and getting as close as we could to some of the ferocious falls.
After a few hours and plenty of stunning views, we were sufficiently out-waterfalled to appreciate the surroundings anymore and retreated back to town for a hearty meal and some much needed hammock time.
It was great exploring the park and hanging out long into the night with a friendly group of like-minded travelers from four different countries, all on our own individual journeys through South America. Although traveling alone can make for challenging experiences at times, it also entices random encounters and ensures you're always meeting new people and stepping outside of your comfort zone.