Thank you, Colombia, for some of the best months of our lives.

Greetings from Ecuador!  We enjoyed our planned one month in Colombia so much that we spent 89 days there, leaving Friday the 21st of November, the day before our visa expired.  Much has happened over these past months.  Words cannot express the transformation that has occurred in our lives.  We could not have imagined how our travels would cause our love for each other, our family, our friends, humanity and this beautiful planet to grow exponentially from our powerful wedding weekend in July of 2014.  We share some of our top experiences in Colombia below.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask us to expound on a topic.  Also, see our map if you would like to follow where we’ve been.
Day 1 in Bogota - Photo by Joe Wheeler

  • Colonial Town and Enormous Plaza After arriving in the big city of Bogota with Kate’s brother Joe, the three of us headed north exploring the small towns in the northern Andes. Our first stop was picturesque Villa de Leyva, a Colombian tourist town known for its enormous colonial central plaza, one of the largest in South America. The plaza is so large that one cannot recognize another standing on the other side.  We spent just a few days there relaxing in a comfortable Austrian-Colombian run hostel and dining on some traditional Colombian meals. One meal involved watching a dog and cat help one another get scraps from the restaurant patrons.  Help may be a bit of a misnomer because the cat tried to pull food out of the dog’s mouth a number of times!

Kurt in one of the largest squares in South America

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva

  • Home-cooked Market Meals with New Friends We spent five days in Pamplona, a smaller city off the beaten track near the border with Venezuela.  We viewed a couple of overpriced hotels after getting off the bus then passed through the plaza which was under construction. On the other side of the plaza, we heard “Welcome to my country!  Where are you staying?  Come with me. I’ll show you the cheapest and best place to stay.” We had heard that “cheapest and best” business all over India a few years ago. At first, we were skeptical but then we realized pretty soon after that this guy was okay. Al is a big guy, light skinned and hilarious. His father was a Texas oilman, born a half hour from where Kurt was born. His mother is Colombian. He spent a lot of time in Houston. Kurt and Al talked about different places in the Houston area. A warm, affable guy, Al kept referring to himself as cray-see. He was traveling with his Venezuelan wife, Arelis. She is very sweet and speaks no English. Al pointed us to the Hotel Ursua, a 400 year old hotel across the plaza from the church. Supposedly, Simon Bolivar slept there during his travels. We all loved Pamplona. Al and Arelis had been in Pamplona for a few days before we arrived so they had plenty of insights to share. Al is a fruit aficionado and spent a lot of time in the markets on the other side of the plaza.  He introduced us to many exotic fruits. In one of the markets, he developed a relationship with an Afro-Colombian cook called Nuriz who is from the Pacific coast. A delightful and upbeat person, Nuriz is a light in the dark. You would only understand if you met her. After eating in her restaurant all week, we discovered that most of her patrons were eating on credit. Not a fear in her face, she greeted all of us at every meal with a loving embrace.  After Al and Arelis left to return to Venezuela, we met a Frenchman who had opened a hotel in the hills and took us on a day trip driving around the countryside where he showed us an area he called “little Ireland.”  A retired truck driver, he and Kurt got into gear-head mode, ultimately discussing the intricacies of the N9T that Peugeot adopted from Simca.

Pamplona hotel room

Al, Arelis, Joe and Kate at the fruit market

One of Nuriz's famous soups with papas criollas

Friendly Colombian police

Nuriz with Al and Arelis

Just outside of Pamplona - Little Ireland

  • Caribbean Ocean Sunrise  Swimming in the Caribbean Sea in glitzy Rodadero on Kate’s birthday was a pure delight. We arose early to beat the sun and the people trying to sell us everything from sunglasses to boat tours. We waded into the calm sea. The air temperature, water temperature and position of the sun in the sky were absolutely perfect for swimming. The cove at Rodadero blocked the Caribbean waves and made for calm waters. We witnessed the locals as they swam for exercise and ran along the beach. It was the most pleasant swimming experience we had in the Caribbean Sea in Colombia. Fortunately, it was on Kate’s birthday which made it all the more special. Afterward, we sat in our wet bathing suits sipping coffee in a beachside restaurant watching the community wake up and start the day. Had we known the specialness of the moment, we may have stayed a little longer. Sometimes serenity can be found in the most commercial of places.

El Rodadero

  • A Backpacker’s Oasis The Dreamer Hostel is a backpacker’s paradise. Joe worked at the Santa Marta location when it was just getting up and running. We landed there on Kate’s 32nd birthday, the day after Joe’s best friend Armin arrived from California. The kind staff cooked a special birthday cake with candles and the works. After the cake was delivered to our table, the staff and fellow guests sang “Happy Birthday”. The hostel has the vibe of an international backpacker’s embassy. People from around the world gather to get a respite from the Colombian way of life and relax in the comforts of real Italian pizza and cozy hammocks. We made it to the newly constructed second location near the beach in Palomino. On the first day, Joe and Armin accepted jobs as bartenders in exchange for free room and board. We visited them nightly to witness their new skills and play some pool. After four nights in Palomino, we bid farewell to Joe and Armin and headed west to Cartagena on our own.

The sweet dog who lives at The Dreamer - Santa Marta

Joe and Armin At The Dreamer - Santa Marta

At the Dreamer - Santa Marta

The bartenders

The Dreamer - Santa Marta - Photo by Joe Wheeler

Kate's Birthday Dinner - Santa Marta - Photo by Joe Wheeler

The Dreamer - Santa Marta - Photo by Joe Wheeler

  • Eight Days in Cartagena  One of the best parts about extended travel is the ability to really settle into a place, witnessing the regulars walking to work, noticing a familiar face at the corner store or developing a favorite dish from a particular restaurant.  Eight days relaxing in romantic Cartagena gave us the sense of settling in.  Our routine was simple.  We walked in the historic city center daily, discovering a new street, enjoying a sesame candy in the “Portal de los Dulces”, eating artisanal ice-cream made with exotic tropical fruits or playing with Juanita, the dog that lived at our hotel (basically a female version of “That Lil’ Dude”).  We noticed a skate park within the city park across from our hotel the day we arrived.  Filled with crude hand-made ramps, it reminded Kurt of the street skate contests held in the Houston area and around the USA in the 1980s.  It was crowded with Colombian teenagers.  A sign above it read “Christian Skaters” and indicated the park had been donated by a Christian organization.  Another day we passed by and arrived during the quarterly skate contest.  Kurt was itching to join in and only wished he had brought his skate shoes.  The American missionary organizer lent Kurt his skateboard so that he could join in the fun on the condition that he return it to him whenever.  Kurt enjoyed showing the kids 1970s and 1980s skateboard tricks that he was sure they had never seen before.  We dined almost nightly at our favorite pizza place in all of Colombia, I Balconi, an Italian run restaurant specializing in hand-made pasta.  Mmmmm.  One afternoon we decided to take a tour of the city with a guide that offered a price substantially less than others with high ratings on TripAdvisor.  We discussed it and decided what could the difference really be?  Well, turns out we got what can only be described as a ‘fake tour of Cartagena’.  The information we were given was as far from fact, but memorable nonetheless.  It inspired Kurt to cross reference every myth he remembered and in turn helped us find some truths about the city.  The neighborhood we stayed in was across the large park from the historic center.  It is called Getsemani.  Many nights, we would gather with locals and some tourists in the plaza in front of the neighborhood church.  It felt good to hang out with the Getsemani locals.  We discovered that free foreign films were shown almost every night in the city.  We watched an Italian film subtitled in Spanish in the church plaza.  Another night, we watched a Truffaut film at Alliance Francaise.  Early in our days in Cartagena, afternoon rains brought the temperature down but later in our stay a few nights followed by rainless days were sweltering in our non-climate controlled hotel.  We didn’t go to Tayrona Park when we were in Santa Marta because we were planning to go to the less touristy San Bernardo Islands.  The day we were leaving, we were told about an oil spill in the area and were advised not to go so we went went directly to Medellin instead.

Pizza at I Balconi

Juanita - the hotel's dog in Cartagena

On the fake tour of Cartagena

El Portal de los Dulces

At the skate contest in Cartagena

Sunset in Cartagena

 

  • Spanish Classes in Posh Poblado  Kate wanted to brush up on her Spanish and Kurt needed to learn some basics, so we enrolled in five days of Spanish classes in the El Poblado neighborhood of Medellin.  By far the most modern of all Colombian cities, we stayed on a street which could easily be mistaken for a trendy avenue in San Francisco, CA.  We took Spanish classes for four hours each day, within our group levels.  We dined in two of the most delicious vegetarian restaurants we had ever been to in the world, enjoying falafel shawarmas and real green salads.  Early on in our visit, we spent an afternoon playing with children at an orphanage.  We lingered over the Botero statues on our somewhat fake tour of Medellin (perhaps this is a theme?).  We made it to the Plaza Minorista market one day to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and discovered it by accidentally walking down one of the not-so-safe streets of Medellin.  One of the best parts of our visit was stumbling upon the swimming pool area of “El Estadio”, which is free and open to the public at certain designated hours.  We were lucky enough to meet a Colombian man who spoke decent enough English to explain to us the odd schedule.  We returned with our bathing suits and were able to swim in one of the 14 pools for over an hour.  It was a swimmer’s paradise!

El Estadio Piscinas Medellin

Vegetarian Food in Medellin

Botero statues plaza

Kurt with his Spanish teacher and classmate

Plaza Minorista Market

Relaxing at the Botanical garden

Volunteering at the Orphanage in Medellin

  • Best Chocolate and Amazing Lake Views  One of our favorite towns in all of Colombia is Guatape, a few hours outside of Medellin.  Here we ate amazing maracuya truffles and fresh Italian pizza from the chocolate shop and restaurant owned by Jose, a Colombian from Bogota who went to school in the USA.  He has been a professional chocolatier for over twenty years.  He hired an Italian man called Radha to make pizzas in the back of his shop.  Jose and his wife Lili moved to Guatape to get away from the big city life in Bogota.  It was easy to understand why after we spent three relaxing days there.  The main attraction in Guatape is El Penon, a massive monolith on the edge of the lake.  We didn’t go there.  We took a bus toward San Rafael to a stop in the road to swim in the Bizcocho river.  A retired man from Medellin kindly welcomed us onto his property where he was building a restaurant.  He showed us his very old Harley-Davidson that he had restored.  We walked down to the clean, flowing river near his home to swim where we met a family from San Rafael that was very interested in talking with us.  They were very kind people.  Another day, we took a cheap tour of the lake which ended up being more of a ‘booze cruise’ blasting reggaeton at 10am.  We were invited to dance on the roof of the boat with several dozen crazy Colombians.  On our last morning, we walked an hour to the nearby Benedictine monastery for mass which included incense and Gregorian chants.  El Penon was in our view during almost all of our walk.

The church in Guatape

The owner of the land we crossed over to get to the Bizcocho river swim spot

Swimming in the Bizcocho

On the cruise around the lake

The church at Guatape

Jose, the chocolatier, and Kurt

View of El Peñón on our walk to the monastery

  • Five Days in the Coffee Region  Salento is touristy for a very good reason.  It has everything a backpacker could want – excellent comfort food, beautiful landscapes, numerous outings that won’t break the pocketbook.  We hiked an hour to a small coffee farm called Azarcia for a tour.  Immediately upon arriving, it began to storm and we sat under the front porch drinking coffee from the farm while waiting for the rain to subside.  Kate tried to converse with the friendly owner but the sound of the rain hitting the metal roof was so loud that she couldn’t decipher a word he said.  We played with little puppies that were nipping at our ankles instead.  After starting the coffee tour, we were joined by two ladies from Paris.  The four of us were guided through the process of growing and harvesting coffee and were served a cup as a treat at the end of the tour.  Afterward, we completed the loop that we began in town, hiking an additional two hours.  The highlight of our visit to Salento was hiking the Valle de Cocora, outside of town.  After treking two hours through mud and sludge along the river and across rickety bridges, we stopped at Acaime, a privately owned property offering fresh panela-sweetened coffee, home-made cheese and a place to sit and rest while admiring 20 species of hummingbirds.  We didn’t bring many snacks on the 5 hour trek so the bolt of caffeine and food was absolute paradise.  We were blessed with perfect weather and upon reaching the crest of the mountain, above cloud level, we began descending upon hundreds of palm trees over 100 feet tall.  It was a sight unlike anything we had seen.  We finished the day off as any dutiful backpacker would, watching Indiana Jones in the makeshift movie theater at Brunch Cafe while enjoying vegetarian black bean burgers and peanut butter brownies with ice cream.

Peanut Butter Brownies

At our favorite coffee shop, Jesus Martin

On the coffee farm tour

Valle de Cocora hike

Up close with the hummingbirds

Panela-sweetened coffee and cheese

The Cocora trees

On the Cocora hike

  • Ancient Pre-Colombian Statues and a French Villa  We met up with Joe for the 2nd time in San Agustin, south of the Tatacoa Desert.  Daily, Kurt and Joe enjoyed fresh squeezed cane juice from a street vendor in the town square.  After several days staying in a ridiculously cheap and somewhat disgusting hotel, we checked into a French-owned hostel high on a hill above the town.  Luscious tropical plants surround the property.  The interior is made completely of wood, feeling like a lodge.  We cooked many meals there and took several long hikes through the countryside.  We spent one afternoon at the archeological park, curiously admiring the pre-Colombian statues that had appeared from a mysterious civilization.  They were all found buried underground and some had been carved into the rock of the riverbed.

On a hike to see El Tablon

Fresh cane juice

Chess game at the French hostel

Archeological Park in San Agustin

  • An Indigenous Community and Vertical Hike to Hot Springs  One of our last stops in Colombia was Valle de Sibundoy.  We spent more time there than in any other place.  After meeting Claudia, an anthropologist, at the Popayan bus station, we decided to take the highway known as the “Trampoline of Death” from Mocoa to Sibundoy.  We lucked out with the weather and the road was fine.  The Sibundoy Valley is full of indigenous tribes and the land is very sacred and fertile.  We were welcomed into the community and learned about their culture and customs.  We went on one of the hardest hikes of our lives to sacred springs.  We were guided into the canyon by an indigenous man we had hired accompanied by his two 9-year-old daughters.  The trek was almost vertical and if it weren’t for the tree roots popping out of the ground, we would have certainly slipped down the mountain.  At the bottom, we discovered the holy waters.  There were springs so hot that you could boil an egg and cold springs so cold they were uncomfortable to immerse yourself.  At a few places they mixed to form the perfect temperature.  We were invited to a birthday party for a seven year old boy where we learned traditional dance from the young people in the community.  We worked in the school’s traditional garden, presented a slide-show of the United States and went on a 7 hour hike to a waterfall with all of the children from the school.  On the hike, we were addressed as “Profes” (a short word for teacher). We had never felt so welcomed by any community that we had encountered in the world, besides our own families.

Trampolín de la Muerte Road

Kate in a Family Home

Kate and Kurt on a hilltop in Sibundoy Valley

At the Sacred Springs

Kate and Claudia

Kate, Kurt, Joe and Claudia at the Springs

Learning Traditional Dance

Kurt working in the School Garden with a Machete

Pulling Light Cards with the Kids at the School

Picking Strawberries at a Family Farm

  • Las Lajas: A Perfect Conclusion to our Time in Colombia  In Sibundoy, we were encouraged to see Las Lajas, a Catholic pilgrimage site where the Blessed Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus are believed to have appeared.  Kate researched a convent that had rooms available to pilgrims.  The three of us went there together.  It was a grounded and serene conclusion to an amazing journey and a preparation for a new start in Ecuador.

Kate and Joe at the Convent

The priest blesses people with holy water after mass

Kurt at Las Lajas Church

Las Lajas, built into the side of the canyon

 

 

10 Replies to “Thank you, Colombia, for some of the best months of our lives.”

  1. thanks so much for sharing. I have really enjoyed reading this and look forward to whatever else you will share in the future.

  2. What an incredible way to start your married life! I am so tickled that you had such a great time and am now inspired to visit some parts of the country I have never been to. Maybe we can meet in some beautiful Colombian village sometime in the future? Many blessings!!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this rich chronicle of your journey thus far. I so appreciate the way in which you really immerse yourself in the culture.

    We love you!

  4. Kate and Kurt, thank you so much for sharing your travel experiences. I loved reading every word and viewing every photo. I am so happy for the two of you! I love you!
    Sandy

  5. Great blog / diary! The photos are exceptional as well. I want to visit Las Lajas! Thanks for contacting me today. Safe travels, and send this again.

  6. Great blog, the 3 of you have done what I always wanted.
    One question: You went swimming in the Carribean and wore BATHING SUITS?

  7. Looks like you are having a wonderful time. I am happy that this has been an impactful, transformative experience for the two of you.

  8. Hi Kate and Kurt,

    Looking forward to talking after you emerge from the Amazonian jungle!

    Love

    Mom

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