San Agustín to Pitalito to Quito

Pasto

Pasto Colombia

The overland trip from Colombia to Ecuador – San Agustín to Pitalito to Quito – was exciting and challenging! Instead of backtracking several hours through Popayán via rough, pot-holed Andean roads, I decided to try a less-traveled route through Pasto. The plan was to take a bus from San Agustín to Pasto, spend the night, and the next day travel to Ipiales where I would cross the border into Ecuador.

Adorable Carnival Girl

Pasto Carnival Girl

For many years, the road from San Agustín to Pasto was avoided because it was a hangout for rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, aka FARC Guerrillas), or maybe it was Colombian drug barons – I get the two confused. To fund their operations, FARC guerrillas ambushed autos and buses, stole from or kidnapped passengers, terrified the people, and angered the Colombian government. Travelers steered clear of this infamous back road deep in the dense Colombian jungle at all cost!

Colombia Borders

Colombia’s Five Borders – Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador

After repeated assurance from San Agustín locals that “actividad peligrosa” stopped long ago and there was nothing to fear from the FARC, I decided to try it. The nine-hour ride was uneventful. It was a magical delight for the eyes as we passed through exotic, breathtakingly spectacular scenery deep in the lush, isolated Andes!

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Colombian Andes

I met Christina from Slovakia – also a solo traveler – and we shared travel stories. Christina’s traveling companion was a classic guitar which she guarded carefully. She had been on the road for two months passing through Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia and was on her way to Otavalo Ecuador to visit Otavalo Market famous for its textiles and handicrafts. Christina lived in Spain for several years and in addition to Slovakian, spoke fluent English and Spanish.

Santuario de Las Lajas

Santuario de Las Lajas Basilica Church Ipiales Colombia

Driving into Pasto, we discovered the town was chaotic and wild with an energetic Carnival celebration. There was loud music, dancing in the streets, and a large boisterous Carnival parade with colorful floats. Enthusiastic revelers wore costumes, painted their faces, and sprayed carnival foam on each other. Our Colombian bus driver stopped to greet another driver going in the opposite direction and surprisingly got sprayed in the face with Carnival Foam.

Las Lajas Cathedral Ipiales

Las Lajas Cathedral Ipiales

I’d never been to Carnival in South America but understand it’s celebrated by cities and countries at different times during the year and typically lasts for 4 or more days. It was wild! With so many people celebrating Carnival, the hotels in Pasto were completely booked and people were traveling to nearby Ipiales to find lodging.

Ipiales is known for Santuario de Las Lajas Basilica Church a remarkable neo-Gothic cathedral in a canyon between two mountains. Las Lajas is one of the most beautiful shrines in the world and there are many myths and mysteries about the church. It literally clings to the side of a sheer cliff above the Guaitara River overlooking two waterfalls flowing from the jungle! Steamy jungle mist mysteriously hides and then reveals the magnificent cathedral.

Carnival Revelers

Carnival Revelers

Ipiales was also celebrating Carnival, but we switched buses and headed there anyway, hoping fewer people would be partying. When we arrived it was the same situation – large crowds, a commotion in the streets, and no hotel vacancies.

Tulcan

Tulcan Ecuador

We spoke to someone at the bus station who said we should go ahead and cross the border, spend the night in an Ecuadorian border town called Tulcán, and continue our trip the next day. At this point it was late and we were tired and hungry but couldn’t find a place to buy food. Already exhausted from the long ride, we wondered if we would have to sit hungry in the bus station all night – an unappealing thought.

Before figuring out how to get to Tulcán, we decided to buy our bus tickets to Quito and Otavalo, chill, and see if food was available in the bus station. Although it might have been fun in daylight, we weren’t keen on wandering around Ipiales at night. It looked dangerous and we had no place to store our luggage. Luckily we found a quiet little café in the bus station and ate so-so rice and beans.

Ipiales

Ipiales Colombia

Bellies full, we hopped a taxi to cross the border at Ipiales. It was an intimidating experience – isolated, dangerous, dark, and like I would imagine a concentration camp or prison yard. This was my second or third land border crossing in South America and it wasn’t getting easier.

Pasto Colombia

Pasto Colombia

We completed the immigration paperwork and waited with passports in hand. It’s important to keep your wits about you during a land border crossing. Things happen fast and sometimes there isn’t much time to prepare. It’s a good idea to know how far it is to the other side and where you can pick up transportation – a taxi or bus.

At customs you’re likely to be approached by insistent taxi drivers offering you a ride. Ask them for identification and take your time deciding which one to hire. Even with valid identification accept that going with them in their vehicle is potentially dangerous – especially for solo travelers. You may have to be firm and tell the drivers to back off until you recover from the experience and collect your thoughts. I’ve had several frightening experiences as a solo woman traveler in South America!

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Las Lajas Angel

The immigration official asked if I had been to Ecuador before. I answered yes, as years ago I visited Quito on the way to the Galápagos Islands. She started looking through my passport and didn’t see another Ecuadorian visa. I tried to explain that my passport was renewed so the previous visa was not stamped in the new one. She gave me a dirty look and while wilting from her unfriendly scowl and forgetting all the Spanish I ever knew, I motioned for Christina’s help. With impeccable Spanish Christina explained the absence of a previous visa. The immigration officer accepted her explanation.

Our Lady of Las Lajas

Our Lady of Las Lajas

After our passports were stamped we walked about 700 meters (760 yards) across the border from Colombia into Ecuador. It was pitch dark and surreal. I wondered if it was really happening and pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I was unclear to me exactly why crossings between the two borders required a physical walk. I was relieved when it was over!

Another thing to prepare for before a land border crossing is currency exchange. The process can be informal and chaotic with people standing around waving cash and carrying calculators trying to convince you they know the proper exchange rate. Some countries have designated money exchangers who wear jackets to identify themselves – but really anyone could get one of the jackets! It’s important to make sure you know the fair exchange rate and how much money to exchange and receive in local currency. This depends on how much you like the exchange rate and how long you plan to stay in the country.

On the other side in Ecuador we took a deep breath, hopped a taxi to Tulcán, and found a hotel near the bus station. Exhausted, I slept like a baby. The next day buses were departing for Quito and Otavalo every ten minutes and Christina and I waved goodbye to each other as we boarded our buses at 9:00 a.m. It was a five-hour ride from Tulcán to Quito. There were bumps along the way but in the end everything was fine….

San Agustín Archaeological Park

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Eagle and Snake – Heaven and Earth

Touring Colombia’s San Agustín Archaeological Park was such a unique experience. “The largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America stands in this wild, spectacular landscape. Gods and mythical animals are skillfully represented in styles ranging from abstract to realist. These works of art display the creativity and imagination of a northern Andean culture that flourished from the 1st to the 8th century.”

During the first day our guide and driver, Jose, led Maria, Juan, Juan, and me through burial sites that were some distance away from the main Archaeological Park. I was happy to join the others not only because they were fun and good company but also because they spoke English and could translate some of the details presented in Spanish. Jose has led visitors through the ruins for 20 years and is very knowledgeable about the area. He is also an indigenous native of San Agustín.

Think the sites we toured on day one included the following but we were given so much information, I’m not sure…. The guide-book is in Spanish.

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The hundreds of stone statues at San Agustin were created some 3,300 years ago and discovered in the middle of the eighteenth century.  Mystery still surrounds the ancient civilization that built the monoliths. No one knows exactly how the statues got there or who built them.

The Archaeological Park  has burial remains of indigenous nomadic people. It’s believed the culture disappeared before the Spanish arrived.

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Many also believe those who created the statues did so under the influence of coca leaves or some other hallucinogenic. It’s said that eating coca leaves enabled the masons who built the stone statues to work longer without getting tired.

Archaeologists have studied the ruins for years trying to grasp their significance. However, even experts can only guess the history of the people, statues, and area.

IMG_0118San Agustin Archaeological Park is in a unique geographical location where the Andes Mountains split into three separate cordilleras – east, central, and west. At this same location Colombia’s two major rivers – the Cauca and Magdalena – meet. Both rivers flow the entire length of Colombia into the Caribbean Sea. Burial ruins are scattered throughout the valley. Each statue is different but some of the things they have in common include:

  • Two faces carved into a statue – the lower face portrays individuals as they were in life and the top face shows their higher self.
  • If the statues are holding something in their hands it signifies what they did in life – warrior, stone mason, etc.
  • Many statues have guard figures stationed outside the tomb.
  • The tombs contained ceramic artifacts and gold.
  • Some of the images depict ancient myths, religious rituals, and animals.
  • The graves of kings and wealthy people have distinctive markers and are higher up in the mountains than the unmarked graves of poorer members of the group.
  • Replicas of the original stone statues have been created but the stone always deteriorates or develops mold and has to be cleaned. This is not the case for the original statutes which remain the same throughout time.
  • Only 60% of the ruins are excavated. Further excavation will depend on approval by the Colombian government.
  • There is a constant problem with tomb raiders who loot the sites for gold.
  • Statues show that women were highly revered and treated with dignity and respect.
  • The ruins are a protected UNESCO World heritage site.

Fascinated with the ruins I extended my stay at Finca el Cielo for another day of exploring. During our second day we had another excellent guide – Ernesto. We toured the main archeological park for hours to view other Mesitas (small tables in Spanish). Most of the statues in the park were larger than the ones we saw the day before. Many of them were found buried in the jungle near the place they were displayed.

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Many of the statues were mask-like with fierce animal characteristics like sharp teeth and claws. These statues were used to guard tombs and crops. One statue was part eagle and part snake symbolizing heaven and earth. Some of the statues depict a combination of human and animal traits. Animals included birds, felines, frogs, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, monkeys, and rodents.

One tomb was supposedly a second burial site that contained the bones of a family that were taken from their original graves, combined, and buried together in one mound so they could go to the next life together.

There wasn’t time to visit many other interesting places in San Agustín. One that would have been especially fun is the butterfly farm. There you can coat your fingers with juice to attract the butterflies and within minutes butterflies cover your hands!

Coffee Beans

Coffee Beans

The archaeological sites at San Agustín Colombia  are like nothing I’ve ever seen before!

San Agustín Colombia – Magic and Sacred

Finca el Cielo from Veranda

Finca el Cielo from Veranda

I fell off the grid for a few days in San Agustín. The area is isolated and has Internet challenges, so we had no WiFi at Finca el Cielo – the B&B where I stayed. It was fun escaping reality for a few days! The trip from Cali to San Agustín was interesting. It was a small, clean bus with 15 seats. The bus station was chaotic and teeming with activity but we left promptly at 6:00 a.m. with a full load of passengers.

None of the passengers spoke English. I went with the flow. The vibes were mellow and I sat next to a young brother and sister traveling together to Pitalito. Their mother brought them to the bus station and rushed inside to buy a loaf of fresh bread (pan in Spanish) for them to take along. We exchanged smiles and they slept toppled over each other for most of the trip. Passengers included adults, babies, children, and a curious puppy that smelled everyone’s feet at least twice.

My seat was a few rows behind the young driver who clearly had made the trip a few times before. His passing and tailgating tactics were horrifying! It was amazing that he didn’t slam into someone or go careening off the side of the treacherous Andean road. The smell of brake fluid flooded the bus a few times. I tried not to look forward as it was too terrifying – glad I had a light breakfast!

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Terrain – Cali to San Agustin

Parrot & B&B Guest

Parrot with Finca el Cielo Guest

During the first part of the route to Pitalito we climbed high into the Colombian Andes where the temperature dropped abruptly. I hugged a backpack in my lap to stay warm. Since it was so hot in Cali, I’d packed away warmer clothes.

The roads we traveled were some of the most crooked I’ve ever seen – reminiscent of the coastal road from San Francisco to Stinson Beach in Marin County, but longer and sharper with many more twists and turns! The higher we climbed the greener the terrain became as we passed by coffee, banana, and sugarcane plantations, thick untamed jungle vegetation, cows, and horse farms. It was beautiful!  A few hours into the 6+ hour ride we stopped at a checkpoint where government soldiers with machine guns reviewed the driver’s papers. The soldiers were very young and non-threatening.

As we passed different towns distinct odors permeated the bus. A few of the towns reeked of marijuana and some smelled like smoke from cooking and odors of unfamiliar herbs and plants. Colombian music played during the entire road trip – something that usually drives me crazy but it wasn’t too loud or obnoxious. To improve my Spanish, I tried focusing on the words being sung. In the past, the route we followed through the Andes was popular with Colombian FARC rebels.

We stopped for lunch at a small out-of-the-way roadside café. The family running the restaurant lived in part of the building and offered travelers a quick meal of chicken or fish, rice, and vegetables.

Overlooking Gorge

Overlooking a Gorge

Parts of the road to San Agustín weren’t paved and the driver had to maneuver loose gravel and large potholes. There was heavy traffic on the rough road – pedestrians, horses, motorcycles, buses, cattle, people, and cars. That part of the trip was extremely dusty, and the bumpy motion of the bus was how I imagined being inside a washing machine would feel!  There was no way to read, write, or take photos. The fact that some locals were sleeping was amazing. Sharp turns forced passengers to cling tightly to their chairs – no seat belts.

Magdalena River

Magdalena River

A few hours after the lunch stop the driver dropped those of us headed for San Agustín at a crossroad outside Pitalito. At that point we had already crossed the high Andean peaks and were now down in a valley where the temperature was considerably warmer. We waited a few minutes in the blazing sun and then an open-air shuttle bus picked us up and drove into San Agustín.

The owner of the B&B where I stayed was to meet me in San Agustín for the short drive to Finca el Cielo. Somehow I missed her. After looking around a few minutes I decided to take a taxi with two Colombian guys who were selling guided tours of the ruins. They were talking so fast – couldn’t decipher any of their Spanish. Of course they asked where I was from and we had a short basic conversation in Spanish.

Ernesto (Guide), Maria, Juan, Juan

Ernesto (Guide), Maria, Juan, Juan

Finca el Cielo is isolated outside San Agustín and absolutely gorgeous. It’s situated on rolling green hills with tropical flowers, horses, chickens, parrots, other exotic birds, and two friendly yellow Labradors. The buildings are made of bamboo. The owner is a Swiss woman – Dominique. Dominique has owned and managed the land for almost 20 years. She’s in Switzerland most of the time but plans to make San Agustín her permanent home soon. A lively Colombian family lives on the property, takes care of the animals, and manages the B&B while Dominique is in Switzerland.

Ruin

Ruin

With Finca el Cielo as my base, I spent several days touring the pre-Columbian archaeological sites around San Agustin and will describe that incredible experience in a separate blog post.

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Finca el Cielo Chicken

The first day at Finca el Cielo I met three friendly Colombians visiting San Agustín from Bogota – Juan, Juan, and Maria. They spoke excellent English and invited me to join in their exploration of the ruins. Their company was enjoyable and educational and it was fun getting to know them. The information they shared about Colombia and other countries in South America was valuable. Two countries they recommended were Suriname and Uruguay – both are on my list. After talking to them and others, I’ve decided to skip Venezuela as it sounds too dangerous.

San Agustin

San Agustin

After a long bus ride from San Agustín through Pitalito, Pasto, Ipiales, and Tulcán I arrived in Quito yesterday. Now it feels like the whole thing was a dream. The Internet here is strong, so I can get caught up on blog posts including the San Agustín to Quito adventure.

Ruin Statue

I was in Quito (on the equator) for a few days many years ago on the way to the Galápagos Islands. It’s changed tremendously and I’m re-learning how to get around, acclimatizing to the high altitude, and taking it slow for a few days. Wishing everyone a fantastic 2015! :o)

Zoológico de Cali and Trip to Pitalito

Cali’s zoo is a masterpiece. The layout and signage are the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. It’s like being in the jungle! The Zoo belongs to a foundation whose mission is improving the animals’ diet and natural environment and promoting the care of native flora and fauna.

Species at the zoo are indigenous to Colombia and there is a mariposario (butterfly enclosure). Those who created the zoo took great care in designing an ideal habitat for the birds and animals.

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“Cali Zoo offers a unique experience of direct contact with nature and the culture of South America. The zoo promotes different educational, recreational, and investigative programs to help maintain Colombian biodiversity.”

Colombian Tourists

It’s been very hot in Cali and most businesses were closed yesterday for the New Year holiday. The zoo was a perfect place to spend time!

Thanks to Jorge, a helpful local driver, tomorrow I leave for San Agustin. I never would have been able to book the trip alone with my borderline Spanish. The seven-hour bus ride passes through gorgeous back roads in the Andes! The bus leaves at 6:00 a.m. and arrives in Pitalito at about 1:00 pm. From outside Pitalito you transfer to a taxi and continue a short trip to beautiful, isolated San Agustin.

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Jorge wrote a script for me in Spanish – exactly what to say to the bus driver and how to transfer from the bus to a taxi. The trip goes a bit off the normal bus route and involves being dropped off at a spot outside of Pitalito.

From what I’ve read about San Agustin it’s the kind of place you might never want to leave, but I must be on the road again headed for Quito by January 5th. San Agustin’s population is about 30,000 and the area is known for its magnificent pre-Columbian archaeological ruins which form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The onward trip to Quito involves traveling from San Agustin back to Pitalito and then passing through Pasto and Ipiales before crossing the border into Ecuador. The border crossing sounds a little hairy but I’m not dwelling on it. No doubt it will be an interesting adventure!

Parque El Gato De Tejada

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El Gato del Rio

Parque El Gato De Tejada is an amusing place of interest in Cali.  As you enter the park along the Cali River you’re greeted by El Gato del Rio – a three-ton bronze sculpture created by late Colombian artist Hernando Tejada!

Hernando Tejada

Hernando Tejada

Tejada moved to Cali from Bogotá at the age of 14 and donated the sculpture in 1996, two years before his death. El Gato De Tejada is part of a municipal improvement project designed to beautify the northern banks of the Cali River.

In 2006, the project expanded to include 15 smaller but colorful felines. Each sculpture is cast in the same shape but painted by a different local artist. The cats all have unique stories displayed on plaques in Spanish below the name of the artist. The sculptures are feline depictions of women.

Tejada was born in 1924 in Pereira, Risaralda a coffee-producing area in the Andes foothills. He studied fine arts at the University of Bogotá.

Although oil painting and sculpture were Tejada’s primary mediums, his work includes drawings, photography, and even audio-visual. The talented Tejada learned his fresco technique from Luis Ignacio Gómez Jaramillo, his teacher at the University of Bogotá. Gomez learned his Renaissance technique in Mexico where he studied with Diego Rivera.

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On the way to the park, I stopped at a square in the San Antonio District where I met some friendly locals who talked about Cali and provided insight into the city. One, a young Polish man who had lived in Cali for about 8 months, was selling freshly made chocolates. Another interesting man, a Colombian economist, had lived all over the world before deciding to move to Cali. He graduated from the University of the Pacific in California and lived in San Francisco for several years.

It was a fun afternoon of good company and being educated about Cali and its people. During the day New Year’s Eve was quiet, a time Colombians spend with their families. After a late lunch at a small crowded out-door café I spent the afternoon walking around the city. Most businesses in Cali close early on New Year’s Eve. Around 10:00 p.m. fireworks began in the central part of town along the Cali River and people gathered to welcome in the New Year.

I was invited to a neighborhood celebration by a friendly waiter I met the first day in Cali. The party was at a small hotel in the San Antonio neighborhood – a unique evening with a fun mixed crowd of people I’ll always remember!

From Cali to San Agustin

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Cali Museo La Tertulia

Modern Office Building

Cali River

Cali is an extremely pleasant city and I spend the days exploring its many treasures. Visited Museo Las Tertulia yesterday and enjoyed the modern art on display. The hot tropical climate means things move slowly here but even though it’s been in the 90s, the humidity is low so it’s not unpleasant. Cali has a ton of parks and green areas. The climate and rich soil make it an ideal place for growing just about anything and there are special agricultural programs for residents.

Yesterday I walked along the river and today I’ll concentrate on the San Antonio district. Every night in Cali is like New Year’s Eve – unbelievable – with partying and dancing until dawn.

Office Building

Office Building

Had no idea traveling from Cali to Quito via Popayan or San Agustin would be so complicated, but then that’s what makes traveling in a foreign country interesting. The flights from Cali to Popayan, San Agustin, and Quito are all outrageously expensive – not sure exactly why as the distance isn’t that great.

In order to experience the territory thought it would be more interesting to take a bus over the Andes and stop off at a few places en route to break up the long trip. Turns out it’s much more complicated than I imagined. Since mi Español is “limite” discussing safety concerns and the nuances and options with someone who doesn’t speak English is a mini disaster.

IMG_0010Just as I was about to give it up, remembered the English-speaking taxi driver who picked me up at the Cali airport – Jorge Rojas – and called him. Jorge agreed to help and suggested picking either Popayan or San Agustin (not both). I opted for San Agustin. It sounds fascinating. Problem is San Agustin is a bit difficult to reach overland. Jorge will see what he can come up with for a less-expensive flight or a trusted overland bus service. I’m confident he can make it happen. Since I’m traveling for a long time the trip must be as economical as possible.

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Every time I commit to booking something in advance it’s regretted later. The advanced hotel booking in Quito begins January 5th and it’s too late to change or cancel it without a huge penalty – : o (. Can’t remember why I did that but have re-learned the perils of making advanced bookings and will not make the same mistake again on this trip.  It would be nice to have more time in San Agustin – assuming I can figure out how to get there!

FELIZ ANO NUEVO Para Todos!!

Cali – Colombia’s Fiesta Capital

Cali Panorama

Cali Panorama

Cali (caleños) is in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca and considered one of the major economic and industrial centers of the country. Known as Colombia’s capital of fiestas, dancing, and salsa, they say in Cali salsa dancing is more common than walking! The first day in Cali I noticed salsa music and dancing late into the night. The people here are friendly and happy.

Cali is surrounded by Farallones de Cali, a cluster of mountains in the West Andes. The craggy peaks give rise to seven rivers that flow down the surrounding hills and give Cali its water and electricity. I plan to take a walk upstream to popular Fundación Farallones Park.

In the evening, everyone’s attention turns to dancing. In Juanchito, Cali’s Salsa hotspot, “mulatto floorboards become dance-o-dromes,” where tourists and locals dance until dawn. There are many cultural activities and centers like the Instituto Departamental de Arte y Cultura, the Teatro Municipal, the Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia, and the Escuela Departamental de Teatro. I’m considering a salsa lesson and maybe a few Spanish classes.

Lulo Fruit

Lulo Fruit

A friendly waiter at a café where I had lunch yesterday invited me to join a New Year’s Eve party. It’s at a small hotel nearby and begins late. He said most Colombians spend New Year’s Eve celebrating with their families and then go out to dance and party until dawn.

Cali is full of delicious food and has a huge variety of cozy, reasonably priced restaurants and cafes with just about any cuisine you could desire. The traditional food is a combination of the region’s Spanish, Quechua, and African heritage with the culinary secrets of Antioquia. Favorites are tortilla soup, aborrajado (ripe plantain with melted cheese), toasted green plantain with a hogao (vegetable stir-fry), and tamales. Sugarcane plantations inspire exotic desserts like manjar blanco (a sauce made of milk and sugar heated until it caramelizes), coconut sweets, and champús – a beverage made from corn, the pulp of the lulo fruit, pieces of pineapple, cinnamon, and brown sugar syrup.

Cali’s climate is tropical and hot. The west branch of the Andes blocks the cool, humid air coming from the Pacific Ocean and the average temperature is around 80º F. Dry seasons are from December to March and July to August but thunderstorms are common any time of the year and it’s always advisable to carry an umbrella. It isn’t nearly as humid as Cartagena on the coast of the Caribbean.

My body is wondering what’s going on with so many dramatic climate and altitude changes. In general I feel invigorated and at the same time challenged to keep learning new places where I know no one and haven’t visited before – exciting! Had a few bad headache days after arriving in Bogota but brought Diamox, which helped.

There are many interesting overland trips from Cali to Quito (next stop) and I’m weighing the options available and which would be the safest and most interesting. The overland trip is 20+ hours but along the way you can stop for a few days in fascinating places like Popayán and San Agustin.

Hasta mas tarde!