Tungurahua – What a hike

When you wake up and its dumping rain, your first thought isn’t lets go on an overnight backpacking trip. Only problem was, after a month on the beach, we were eager for a backpacking trip and weren’t going to be turned away easily. So we packed up our bags, threw on every piece of rain gear we had (garbage bag ponchos included) and walked towards the taxi take off point.

Baños sits right at the base of Tungurahua. On a clear day, the volcano stands tall and proud, rising into the sky. Unfortunately, the clouds decided this would be the week they hung right over Baños. Being the overly optimistic American I am, I figured it might clear up and we’d have an epic view at the top. Intelligently, Alaina had doubts at the beginning. Especially when we arrived at the Bus station and the off road vehicle wielding taxi driver incredulously looked at us like

you want to go up there?

Ignoring any lingering common sense we hopped in the truck while the driver shook his head. The drive up to the first ‘refugio’ was flooded and steep. From smooth pavement to rocky paths we made our way up until the refugio came into view through a wall of rain. Running into the reserve we were met by a ranger who immediately demanded our attention for an introduction to the park.

With professional grace the guide launched into a rapid set of warnings, advice and occasional tangents while we made our final preparations. He gave us the option of paying immediately or when we got back for staying in the second refugio higher on the mountain… we opted for paying later just in case we didn’t make it.

The scenery was beautiful when we started. 40mph winds, heavy cloud cover, and a river running down the trail were some of the first sights. This was of course after we walked around for a little bit trying to find the path, afraid that the small river was the only way up. The trail is understandably susceptive to flooding because its at a 45 degree angle running between pastures, making it the perfect waterway.

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Alaina hiking up through one of the many tunnels.

Dirt walls rose up on either side of us forming tunnels at different points. We sidestepped ankle to knee deep mud on parts of the trail, basically crawling. I finally began to doubt my faith in the clouds clearing at the top.

Eventually, we had to question whether it was a good idea. Is it worth it to hike 6 hours in the rain? Of course not

Tungurahua’s peak lies at 16,479ft. Luckily we were only going to the Refugio at 12,600. For our unacclimated bodies, it was getting hard. Sometimes you just gotta push through. Luckily, as we neared the refugio, the rain let up and we could even glimpse the valley floor momentarily. It was just enough to get our hopes up and make us realize how incredibly beautiful it would be on a clear day (mental note to come back).

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Isn’t it just stunning!

Our luck continued to improve as we finally arrive at the refugio. Right as we got inside, the rain started dumbing buckets. Hanging up clothes, making coca tea (for elevation), and generally trying to stay warm constituted our evening until another adventurous pair of hikers arrived. Although the hike was slightly miserable, meeting two avid hikers from Quito made it all worth it.

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View from inside the refugio.

Playing card games, making hot soup, and learning about our drastically different cultures rejuvenated our spirits. Listening to the rain hit the roof knowing we were warm and dry, in the company of newfound friends will simply make you grateful.

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Switch it up. Set the tent up inside.

Waking up early and practically running down the mountain brought us back to the ranger station in under an hour. Soaked, sweating, with blood pumping from the exertion, we stepped onto the dirt road. Of course, we started walking and found ourselves traversing overflowing roads and muddy waterfalls cascading over embankments. At this point the rain hadn’t stopped for 16hrs and we were loving it. Embracing the rain filled boots we walked down the mountain until we hopped in the back of a farmers truck heading to Baños.

In the cold open air of the truck bed, I know that there was no other place I’d rather be than speeding down the flooded streets into Baños, Ecuador.

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A Word on Surfing in Ayampe

The Ayampe surf life is simple. Eat, breathe, and ride waves. Most of the population has moved there in order to have consistent access to the warm, turquoise beach break. The small town public conversation usually revolves around the swell that’s supposed to be coming within the next few days or how damn good it was yesterday.

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Every sunset was a different color in Ayampe. 

The surf culture in the states usually has a stigma of being “broey“. This is not the case in Ayampe. Acceptance is as warm as the water. “Que tal” and thumbs up is what you see most in the lineup. Drop in on someone’s wave and they may get upset but they won’t be screaming or beating on you (I’ve heard horror stories in California). Take off on the biggest wave of the set and you’ll hear hoots and hollers of joy as you fly down the line. It also helps that the beach is over a mile long with breaks all along it. There’s plenty of room for everyone.

As with any other beach break, the shape, consistency, and size of waves varies. From low tide to high tide, there’s anything from barrels to sloping wide open faces. I quickly had to get in good surfing shape, because battling against seemingly never ending white water requires endurance. The reward of catching a wave after using your last ounce of strength is worth it.

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Surfing is notorious for its highly devoted clientele. A question I often hear from non-surfers is “why is it so addicting?”. I think the answer is simple; reward. Anyone who has tried to learn to surf understands how difficult the sport is. When you finally stand up on a wave, or learn the turn you’ve been attempting for weeks, exaltation abounds. Once that feeling courses through your veins, all you want is more. It sounds like a drug because it can become one. For this reason, you’ll find locals who have carved out a life in Ayampe in order to paddle out every day they can.

The unique combination of good waves and severe lack of tourism surprised me. The stretch of beach over a mile long only had a few people on it the first week we arrived. Obviously, as the holiday season kicked in, the crowds increased, but nothing compared to the popular town of Montañita just to the south. Ayampe served as a quiet haven, secluded from the usual rush of tourists during the holiday season.

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The Ayampe lifestyle. 

The culture and beauty of Ayampe cannot be understated. From the incredible sunsets, to welcoming community, it is a wonderful place.  With a wide open beach that catches any swell, the waves are ever-present. It’s an underrated surfers paradise tucked into the coast of Ecuador that I won’t forget.

 

 

Colombias Very Own Burning Man

You never know where you’ll find yourself on the road. It’s one aspect of traveling I enjoy the most. Expecting one thing and getting another teaches you to release control of things outside yourself. I’ve learned repeatedly that I can only control how I react to each situation I’m in. Better to accept the unavoidable changes of destiny and make the most of them.

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Somehow in the past week we found ourselves helping set up for Colombia’s Burning Man. The legendary festival from the states found a long-lost brother in Colombia and we arrived just in time to help him get ready for the party. We got lucky volunteering with some amazing people.

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Coco building benches in our makeshift work area.

We spent a majority of our time painting signs for the festival. Anything from “First Aid” to koi fish circling each other. Each day all the volunteers ate meals together, wolfing down food after a long day of work. Breaking bread with Colombians never gets old. There’s always jokes, laughter, and good conversation.

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Daniel center-right.

The festival is held in a pasture on Daniel’s property (he puts on the festival). As the week went on, the festival grounds slowly started to take shape. Grass was cleared, showers put up, and eventually, two stages were installed. Long, hot days left people exhausted. We were lucky to be staying at Daniel’s house on the property which had a pool and a plethora of beds.

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Every evening we watched the sunset and the fireflies light up the grass from the patio. One of the volunteers, Mark, became a good friend of ours. He shared some wild stories about riding his horse solo from Colombia to Peru. 

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Santi(ago) escaping from the heat.

Before we knew it, Friday had arrived. As we scrambled to get the last of it set up, folks started arriving. Music thundered from the stages and we could feel the bass a hundred yards away in our room. We could tell it was going to be true Colombian party.

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Huge trees hung over the two stages which mad a great backdrop.

Throughout our travels we’d learned Colombians love fireworks. As we watched the Man burn that night they proved their love again. With music blaring and neon lights flashing, hundreds of fireworks were shot into the sky and at the Man

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When we signed up to volunteer we figured we’d be helping at a hostel with daily maintenance duties. In reality, we signed ourselves up to help put on Hombre en Llamas. We met amazing people from around the world, danced our asses off through the night, and had an experience we’ll never forget. Colombia surprised us in ways we couldn’t have imagined. 

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Los Nevados: Part 1

The alarm went off at 5:30, we zipped up our bags, chowed down on some eggs, and were out the door. We began the hike in Cocora Valley (9000ft), famous for the 60 meter palm trees. We asked a few last minute questions, lathered the sunscreen, and shed a layer. The sun was bright and warm.

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Cocora Valley

The trail starts mellow, winding through fields, eventually heading into a dense rain forest. We crossed a small creek several times via sketchy wood planks. The climb was comfortable at first. We were in the shade, the air was cool, and we were full of energy.

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Let’s just say the trail is consistent… consistently straight up. It’s like doing the stair master on the slowest speed with a 30-40 pound pack. When we arrived at Estrella de Agua, we were happy to shed the weight. Estrella de Agua is essentially a ranger station. We gave the park employee our information, our destinations for the next few days, and in return he gave us some information and wished us well. The family living in the very rustic house next to the ranger station was serving up lentils, rice, and plantains to their family. They quickly offered us a bowl for $1.50. Worried that we hadn’t packed enough food, we couldn’t deny the hot meal.

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The family’s home and sleepy guard dog.

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With full bellies, we felt like slugs back on the trail. Lesson learned, no heavy meals before a steep climb. We navigated through thick mud, winding up the mountainside. After a few hours, we reached the tree line and entered into the paramo. Full of odd shaped plants, brush, and fog coming as quickly as it was going.

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Destroyed portion of the trail.

We had heard horror stories about the fog getting so thick you can’t see more than a foot in front of you. Of course, that’s where my mind goes, so I picked up the pace. The adrenaline was pumping and I wanted to arrive at the campsite before we were one of those lost hikers. No I’m just kidding, but I did get a second wind and the eagerness was real.

We caught up to three French men hiking with a Colombian guide which was a relief to know we were still on the right path. Our destination was Finca Primavera, a small house with a few rooms and a place to pitch a tent.

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Final descent down to Finca Primavera.

As we started the final descent, the clouds slowly started to clear exposing Tolima, a snow covered peak. The guide explained that the snow at the top is a permanent glacier and can be summited with the proper equipment. Bucket list. By the time we reached the Finca, the clouds had cleared completely giving us incredible 360 views of the mountains and the valley below. What a reward after 10.5 miles of climbing.

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We set up camp while snapping shots of the sunset. I think my body was a little in shock and an intense shiver took over. I layered up, got in my sleeping bag, and boiled water in the tent. Once the sun set, the wind picked up, and Taylor was soon next to me in his sleeping bag fighting off shivers. We moved around like worms warming up our bags and our bodies.

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A clear night and nearly a full moon.

A hot meal and a cup of tea put us into a coma. We snuggled up and fell fast asleep. We awoke with the sun rising. We had a slow morning watching the sun light up the peaks around us. While packing we conversed with Colombians who were on an eight day trip through Los Nevados. They invited us to join them at the end of their trek to summit one of the peaks. We exchanged numbers, said our goodbyes, and were back on the trail headed to Termales de Canon.

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Tolima and all it’s beauty.

A Few Things About Medellín

The bus ride from Santa Marta to Medellin is long, 16 hours long. Taking the overnight bus helps time pass by a little quicker. The sleep is restless and you’ll do just about anything to get comfortable including getting on your knees and resting your head on the seat. However, this only applies to people under 5’5”. As we entered into Medellin, there were high rises made of brick as far as we could see. We stepped off the bus at North Terminal, into refreshing cool air. Amen to no humidity.

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Rainy but beautiful.

The metro is the best option for ease of travel throughout Medellin. The rails run through the center of the valley from north and south, with a few lines running east and west. The metro is clean, unusually clean for public transportation. Since then we’ve learned the locals take extreme pride in their metro. No food is allowed on the platforms and if you put your feet up on the seats while riding, its likely you’ll get yelled at. Anyways, the metro is clean, easy to use, and gets you just about anywhere.

Here are a few parts of the city we’ve explored…

1. Poblado

Poblado is definitely the ‘hippest’ and most famous neighborhood of the city. When tourists go to Medellin, they usually end up in Poblado. The streets are lined with international restaurants, hip coffee shops, and nicely dressed business folk. Poblado is part of the 2.5 million inhabitants of Medellin, but you can step off the main roads into quiet, canopy covered side streets. It’s refreshing to be in a big city and not be shoulder to shoulder with the masses.

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Colombian saying meaning “Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of”

Did we mention all the greenery? It’s amazing. The people of Medellin take pride in their trees, much like Chico, California. During the expansion of the city the trees were preserved in order to filter the polluted air from the millions of cars and factories. Brilliant work!

Overall Poblado is a great place to stay in Medellin. We loved the atmosphere plus the ability to easily reach the rest of the city (via metro/uber/taxi).

2.  Parque Explora

We hit Medellin in the middle of the rainy season. Therefore, it was raining all day our first day. Apparently it’s typical in Medellin. One of the first suggestions on the internet to do was Parque Explora. An indoor exploratorium never fails to entertain so we decided to go for it. When we got there we learned that five major sections make up the complex: an aquarium, physics, mind, film, and time.

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Entrance to the time exhibit at Explora.

You can spend a whole day in there trying out the many different interactive displays. Starting with the aquarium we got to stare down eels and stand face to face with fish bigger than Alaina. Learning all these animals were endemic to Colombia was fascinating. The amount of diversity bottled into one building left us oohing and ahh-ing (except for the giant cockroaches).

3. Parque Arví

In order to get some outdoor time we decided to check out Parque Arví. It’s a short metro cable ride. The rad thing about heading up to the park via the metro cable is flying over the Medellin “comunas”. The hillside below is completely covered by tin roofs and make shift brick walls.

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View of the “comunas”.

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The park is close to Medellín, but remote enough to have the trails to yourself. Every day of the week you’ll be able to find at least 10 stalls at the Arví Market. The market is held at the top of the metro cable and boasts local foods and products from the region. Snacking on some delicious food prior to walking around the park kept us full and happy the entire time we were there.

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Cheesy good bread at the market.

4. Hit the Town

Poblado is poppin’ Thursday through Saturday nights and we got to enjoy a couple nights out. One of the great things about Medellin, and a lot of South America, is sitting in the city plaza with your friends, drinking a beer.

Clubs, restaurants and bars line the streets with well dressed Colombians and underdressed tourists eager to dance. Cover charges are pretty steep at the clubs but people will pay for good music and dancing. It’s common to be out until the early morning hours.

After spending some solid time in Medellin we were ready for a break from the city and decided to make our way south towards Salento…

 

Monguí – A brief visit

After navigating a few bus rides from Villa de Leyva we made it to Monguí. A small colonial town of about 5,000 inhabitants. Most of the houses are congregated around the dominating church at the center of town. It’s got a large beautiful, cobble stone square similar to Villa de Leyva’s with a few different touches. One being all the soccer ball shops. The hand made soccer balls are well-known throughout Colombia and they hang in almost every store.

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We got into town late in the evening and almost everything seemed to be closed. Apparently arriving in the middle of the week in small towns such as this means going from hotel to hotel if no reservation was made. We asked the tourist info desk what the cheapest hotel would be and they pointed us in the direction of Terrazas hospedaje. We walked two blocks and arrived at a building with darkened windows. All of a sudden a guy comes running up the street saying this is his place and we can stay for the night. We quickly learned Monguí is not a tourist hub.

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Regardless, we walked around with a beer, ate some fantastic pizza and enjoyed the light rain and warm light pouring out of the few stores still open.

The next day we got a better idea of why Monguí is considered to be a ‘classic’ colonial town. Similar to Villa, all the walls are white but the only other colors you see on the buildings are green and red. It feels a bit like Christmas anywhere you go. I mowed down some coffee, eggs and rice for about two dollars and we set off for a hike.

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Heading out of town towards a beautiful stone bridge we hooked a left and followed the river to a more modern (less striking) bridge. We went left before crossing, thinking we were following the directions correctly and started walking up a path. Almost to the top of the first hill we found out abruptly we were heading into private property. Four dogs came pounding over the crest of the hill barking like mad. They immediately began biting Alaina (no punctures) and I got one swift kick in before the owner came running.

 

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The hike goes along the right side of the river. 

She told us that obviously we follow the right side of the river for the hike. We turned around, adrenaline pumping and found our way up the river to until we connected with the road again. Often with hikes in Colombia, you figure it out as you go.

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Making our way to the top of the hill was slippery and tough. We passed a few sheep and their herder. With a brief break in the rain we caught some good views and our breath at the top. In every direction there were green hills spotted with small garden plots and rustic homes. In the distance looking up the mountain you could see Paramo Soto, and down below lay Monguí.

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Alaina admiring the view. 

After descending, we took an alternate route back through farmland to town. Although its beautiful, we decided to move on after checkout. On the way out of town we got lucky and sat next to Ms. Maruja, an indigenous guide that takes people on amazing guides to the Paramo. She’s focused on taking smaller groups so she can educate them on the importance of paramos in the world ecosystem. Wish we would’ve had time to go with her on the trek. Next destination; San Gil, adventure capital of Colombia.

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You can see the paramo way in the distance. 

 

Villa de Leyva

From Guatape we decided to head east. We’d heard about a small colonial town from some friends and headed into the unknown. Bus routes in Colombia are random and often nonsensical.

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The view on the farm when we first arrived. 

From Guatape we took a 10hr bus ride south to Bogota followed by a 3 hour bus ride north to Tunja, lastly a 1 hour bus north west to Villa de Leyva.

We’ve set up shop with a wonderful family in the countryside. Volunteering has been a great way to spend time with amazing people meanwhile exploring new areas.

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Juan Sol – Son of the owners of the farm, Nitzan and Silvia. 

Volunteering is an exchange of 4 to 5 hours of work for food and accommodation. Here we are spoiled. The food is ridiculously good, all fresh from their garden or the local farmers market. Across the street we purchase fresh milk for approximately USD$1 a gallon.

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Veggie salad fresh from the market. 

The town, Villa de Leyva, is an hours walk away. It’s a picturesque cobble stone colonial town. All the buildings are white, with wood trim, and red tile roofs. The streets are filled with local goods; from pottery, to wool sweaters, to chocolate. Men and women park themselves on benches along the outside of the plaza and watch the passerby’s whilst sipping a Poker (Colombian beer).

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Casual cell phone talk. 

The day we arrived to town, a large rectangle of sandbags was being laid in the middle of the plaza. We later found out it was the setup for the Festival de Caballos (Horse Festival). Villa de Leyva hosts the festival every year, in which different horses (owned in Colombia) from around the world are showcased.

We bought two tickets for USD $4 and anxiously awaited the start. The festival consisted of typical Colombian dancing and horses showing off their own moves (trotting sideways, bowing, jumping, etc). Villa de Leyva was full of Colombians from all over snapping pictures and videos.

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A delicate balance between rider and dancer. 

Every Saturday there is a massive market with fresh produce, artisanal creations, clothes, and second hand items. We strolled the stalls for hours gawking at the colors of the fruits and veggies. Get this, we bought 5 huge avocados for USD$1.50!

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A little amazed at the going on’s in town. 

Then, we scored again when we found a vendor that sold the most amazing olive, oat, wheat, nutty bread. The bread in Colombia is usually white and bland. We ate a loaf of bread accompanied by an avocado and were happy Californians.

The people of Villa de Leyva offer smiling faces and generosity. Most live a “tranquilo” life in the “campesino” (rural area with a lot of agriculture) and seem very relaxed and at ease. It’s truly an incredible place.