On a well seasoned bus somewhere along a stretch of old highway south of Otavalo we crossed the equator. If there was signage along the road I definitely missed it, which would have been an easy oversight amongst the consistently beautiful scenery shifting endlessly through time. The buses in Ecuador all have a thousand stories to tell; they cruise along worn asphalt channels through the mountains every day of the week, carrying thousands of passengers to their destinations in all directions. I recall our bus that day was adorned with aged plush velvety curtains bleached from countless miles it spent cruising in the crisp high mountain air. We had a travel connection ahead of us in Quito that we met on our maiden night in Guadalajara, Mexico. At our first hostel we had met a very friendly, silver-tongued traveler named Juan Carlos. Juan had a larger than life kind of presence paired with an honest interest in engaging with anyone who wanted to talk. Juan spoke fluent English, which was quite necessary for us at the time. After sharing his general travel wisdom, destination tips, and Mexican cervezas he invited us to a free tour complete with a bed to crash on if we ever made it to Quito. As were were heading into Quito I kind of felt like we were walking backwards through time, landing right back into that first night arriving in Mexico. It was a good feeling to dwell in, seeing just how far we had come in the journey and how much we had learned since we first met Juan. These thoughts marinated in my head as we rolled into Quito, two weary travelers ready for a comfortable couch to sit on. Quito had a good public transportation system set up with buses and tram lines, so as soon as we got off the bus we jammed ourselves into a tightly packed subway car with travel gear in tow headed for Juan’s apartment. When we arrived we said hello to a friend we hadn’t seen since our very first moonrise in Mexico, who greeted us with a big warm smile.
With an elevation topping off around 9400 feet, Quito is officially the highest capital city in the world. At first glance, Quito seems like another sprawling, modernized city. Tall glass towers and condos stare off into the distance amongst older buildings that both look and feel their age. Quito is the only capital city in the world that has an active volcano (Pichincha) that still poses a potential threat to the citizens below. A few other eruptions in recent history from nearby volcanoes have deposited ash all over the city, but that is about the extent of the worst damage thus far. Some neighborhoods in Quito are extremely modern from the vantage point of a pedestrian. A steady stream of SUV’s and new cars are always in plain sight amongst huge mega walking malls, ultra modern public spaces, high end shops, retail, and restaurants. The modern areas of Quito felt very familiar, almost like being in an affluent city in the US, which to us doesn’t usually hold too much curb appeal as travelers. The equation for luxury seems to be simple, and it doesn’t typically resonate with our travel agenda. On the contrary, with a guide who knows and loves his city and what it has to offer, this setting can also be a refreshing change of pace from the dirt roads and rough travel we had been living in. Juan promised us a good time and to see some sights, so we were definitely game for that.
Juan took us out for a night of music and some dancing to show us the sights in Mariscal, which is known for it’s nightlife scene. This part of Quito also has a reputation for being a dangerous area for tourists, where petty theft and muggings are prevalent, especially during the wee hours of the night. The streets that evening were brimming with bar after club after bar around almost every corner in the neighborhood. The 20-30’s crowd dominated the population and were all donning their weekend’s best. Our clothes were pretty beat at this point, so we did our best to make my plaid shirt pop (same plaid shirt for 8 months of travel) and Elissa’s dancing boots shine (same boots for 8 months of travel). Juan took us into a club where he knew the bartenders and bouncers, so we got hooked up with some early PM shooters accompanied by loud music. One of his friends handed me a cowbell at one point, which was played flawlessly to every song that needed percussion of course. After checking out a few different venues, Juan ordered a bottle of vodka so we could make our own drinks (common practice in Quito) in a small bar that specialized 1990’s hip hop music videos. Needless to say, dancing ensued. Round off the end of the evening with a 24-hour burger joint, and you have the full picture of our night out.
Quito possesses what is arguably one of the best preserved historical city centers in the world. The old town was the part of Quito that we absolutely melted into. Every building in sight was full of intricate details along their facades enhanced with pastel colored palettes. The setting breathed history right into your mind, and you could almost feel the past hanging onto the walls of each old stoic building. Flat stones that were hand placed in the ground hundreds of years ago lined the plazas that were filled with historic sculptures made of stone and metal. The scene in every direction was a quiet feast for the eyes. It was like watching clips of a past world pan by with each passing step. A casual glance down any one of the long, narrow calles would stop me dead in my tracks while I tried to take in the grandeur of the blocks of buildings staring back at me. The image I have imbedded in my head is one made of perfect little balconies that fade away into the hilly horizon while passers-by carried on with their day.
The streets seem to be decorated with beautiful relics of the past accompanying their ancient counterparts. It was hard to find anywhere to look without being inundated with intriguing little details. It’s was also easy for your eyes to get tired in these types of situations, constantly scanning the surfaces of every foreign shape your eyes could focus on. There were wrought iron railings, foot bridges crossing over deep alleyways, and Spanish tiled roofed houses fading up the hillside in the distance. Unimaginably ornate churches with equally impressive wooden doors and seem to be scattered throughout the beautiful maze of the old streets. Calles and plazas were also public places of gathering for everyone to use and enjoy. We came across a group of a dozen or so people performing Capoeira while dozens more crowded around to watch and listen to the music. Street performers amassed crowds of hundreds in some plazas, while politically charged gatherings were dominating others.
Life all around us was moving at the same pace it would have had we not been there. Cities can give you that sense of being completely inconspicuous in plain sight because nobody seems to notice you’re falling in love with the scene in front of you. Along the side wall of an old church we came across a blind man playing guitar simultaneously with a maraca, which turned into one of my favorite portraits of our journey here. In one of the larger plazas, sitting on a bench next to me was a man getting his shoes shined up before heading into a neatly tucked side street. In almost every direction there was something to be learned and loved, which is a hard attribute to replicate. Walking through the canyon-like alleyways brought us to discover little restaurants, shops, and pubs all tucked away in a pedestrian only area. We got lost following our noses, ears, and eyes until our legs couldn’t stand to take it anymore, and we had to head back to Juan’s to retire. Being blissfully lost in a new place for me is usually a battle between my curiosity and my endurance, both of which became conditioned the more I saw.
On our last day in town, we met up with a college friend of Elissa’s who also happened to live in Quito. Diana took us out to have some really superb Italian food followed up by a treat at an incredibly ornate chocolate and desert store. She offered to help me try and locate some new boots, since my hiking boots were lifted on one of our last legs in Colombia. We went to a few stores before I found the exact same pair of boots that Elissa had, which were also the most economic option available (cute right?). Diana also brought us up to her condo in Quito, which was perched on top of a peak overlooking a gorgeous valley below.
Our friends were too kind to us, and they showed us a bit of Quito we may have never seen without them. Their hospitality was truly appreciated and is a part of our memory of this city. Quito’s old world charm combined with it’s capitalistic ambition has helped to create a modern day timepiece with the capability of oscillating between modern and historical counterparts.
New Year’s Day is both the beginning and the end of something in each and every one of our lives. A lot of people seem to relish in reflection on this day of the year, and rightfully so. It’s commonplace to keep on thoughts on the positive side of the fence, going through the superfluous nature of the highlights of the year and all the accomplishments that surfaced. This kind of review is a good way to look back through rose colored glasses, but I always tend to examine both sides of the coin with intent to see and feel the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful details to see the whole picture. On the last day of the year, memories and images flash flood through my mind as if a gate that was holding back each and every moment suddenly bursts open into a sea of experiences in front of me. This act feels almost as if I’m trying to pause time and live in each moment, with intentions of capturing that feeling once more before letting the swell make it’s way back from where it came. This practice gives me a better perspective on time and the journey itself, which can be extremely hard to do in our fast paced social lives we’ve created for ourselves. Time is always winning the battle against our desire to slow it down, and too often we ride the wave without even glancing back to see what we’ve just come from and how we got there.
2014 started off with Elissa and I settling back on the East Coast after a 30 day train trip around the US. We spent over 7 days time on a train seeing the great American landscapes roll past the glass windows of our train while we waited to step foot in cities I’ve only heard about. The winter felt extremely long upon our return, which is typically a byproduct of travel. 2014 became my most successful year from a career standpoint. I more than surpassed the goal I set for myself at the beginning of the year and am very proud of where I took myself. I felt that I learned how to create a better balance between my work and personal life, which can be extremely challenging in my field. The rapid pulse of Boston real estate can siphon your free time completely if you let it, which admittedly I have fell victim to more than I like to admit. Society makes it easy to let your career define who you are, but in my opinion self awareness can more often than not be found outside of your 9-5 and is a true reflection of what you are capable of as a human during your time on this planet. Bliss can be found by falling back into the moments that mean the most to me, most of which tend to be simple, fleeting, and easily missed if you are not standing still.
I’m glad that my soul requires me to capture images and moments in time without any other end goal in sight. Photography is an invaluable tool to me and a huge part of my life. Not only can it capture a moment in time, but you can put feelings into the scene in front of you from behind the lens too. If you put thought and your heart into the scene or image you are creating you can make something that has real weight to it, which in turn can provoke thought and emotions from the viewer. Looking back through my catalog of images I can see a story in the making years down the road about who I am today and what I was doing during this period in life. I’m not sure this story will end up anywhere but in the ears of those willing to listen, and that’s just fine by me.
2014 was filled with travel. We had both big and mini adventures exploring our surroundings with the time we had to get away and play. 2014 led us back out to the West Coast to get a glimpse of springtime at Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert, explore the scenic coastline along the PCH, and help officiate the marriage of one of my best friends to his other half. 2014 made me an uncle and my brother a dad. Holding 7 day old little Evelyn in my arms was something that I cannot describe well enough with words to capture the gravity of the experience. 2014 took me and my partner in crime kayaking and exploring almost all of the Bay Harbor Islands while daydreaming about shacking up in any of the old New England cottages we stumbled upon. We also made time to savor the off season in Martha’s Vineyard, visit Acadia National Park and Peak’s Island in Maine, finally go camping in Upstate NY, and numerous weekend visits to Newport RI to see both new babies and old landscapes. I got to listen to some of my favorite bands play both on the water and the grass at the Newport Folk Festival again. This year also gave me the chance to witness transitions in many of my friends lives that are leading them to brighter futures in their chosen paths. 2014 gave me the pleasure of helping take Elissa and her family to New Orleans for a week of wandering, eating great food, seeking soulful music, and having clean and simple fun. They are truly the most appreciative people I know, so it was a sweet reward to help create memories I know they’ll be cherishing forever. 2014 also came with extremely heavy circumstances that tested the resilience of my heart and soul. I had to say goodbye to my grandfather at the beginning of this year, and had to help my father through a severe stroke shortly thereafter. The power of love is an incredible thing to feel and to witness. During times of crisis and tragedy it can shine brighter than the sun and feel just as warm.
There are too many memories to think about right now as 2014 is witnessing it’s tenure coming to an end. The clock is ticking down to it’s final moments, and I can’t honestly think of anything but the satisfaction of being alive and well. I’m looking forward to see what kind of year 2015 is going to be as I part ways with another year I’ll be hard pressed to forget.
-Written on New Years Eve, 2014 in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
As I’m sure you can tell by now, Colombia treated us very kindly… maybe too much so. Saying goodbye kind of felt like a farewell to a close friend that you feared you would never see again. Our last bus in Colombia took us through long, sparsely populated valleys with roaring rivers down below. The pop up villages that came and went reflected the isolated way of life the hills themselves cultivated, but still felt very Colombian at their core. Ecuador was in our sights all of the sudden, and it’s presence felt entirely unexpected for no logical reason. It was looming silently ahead in the same veiled way that every new country did in our evolving journey. Whenever we crossed a border things felt exciting, mysterious, and somehow always full of limitless potential. That fresh stamp in your passport was like the start of a chapter that was never written down. There was a blank page looking back into your eyes and it was exciting to surmise that you didn’t know what was going to come out of your pen. Every word that would land on the paper came as it was supposed to, letting the natural core of capturing the experience come to the surface as the journey created itself. Eventually we stepped foot on the edge of Colombian soil and walked across a bridge into Ecuador.
We picked the first larger town on the map and decided to get acquainted with our new country in a city called Ibarra. We found some literature that stated there was some good architecture and hand made ice cream, which seemed like a pretty casual way to warm up to a country. The city was represented as a wolf in sheep’s clothing; It has the cobble stone streets, historic colonial architecture, and large open plazas but it also possessed a fast paced, busy energy of a young city milling about. During the day it could be a bit rough around the edges for a tourist dropping in, and didn’t have the kind of draw a city you would spend a great length of time exploring.
We hunted down the city’s famous ice cream shop, Heladería Rosalía Suárez, where Rosalia discovered back in 1897 that she could make a great tasting ice cream treat without using dairy. She did this by adding pure fruit juices and egg whites into large copper bowls on a bed of straw and ice while hand stirring with a large wooden spoon. Naturally, this shop was amazing. We tried a few different samples before settling in on our choices, which were made fresh in the large copper bowls. After that, we scuffled around the town for a while taking in some architecture and discovering that Ecuador had an unexpected passion for Chinese food. That night we dined on Chifa for the first time in a long time, while Ecuadorians enjoyed the lifestyle of a modern day city with old roots.
We had been carefully timing our trip to the area entirely for a special live event that only takes place in the early Saturday morning hours in a mountain city called Otovalo. Since this was about an hour away from where we were staying, we caught a bus in the AM out of Ibarra and were transported back in time to a hub that is accessed by the thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians that live in the mountain villages nearby. The bus station was a busy, chaotic scene complete with lines that didn’t seem to make any sense, food stalls, and lots of Ecuadorians traveling to all parts unknown. We stepped off the bus and immediately gravitated towards one of my favorite businesses in Latin America, a Panaderia. Fresh baked Latin bread, croissants, and sweet treats get me every damn time. After stocking up, we set out walking with our gear to a dreamy hostel (Hotel Riviera Sucre) that Elissa had found run by a German couple that made Otavalo their home due largely in part to love at first site. The city, which is inhabited by roughly 90,000 people, was originally settled in due to the rich volcanic soils the nearby mountains possessed. These nutrient rich soils were ideal for supporting a natural agricultural economy. The volcanic peaks of Imbabura and Cotacachi reach dizzying heights of 4630 meters and 4995 meters, respectively, and provide a beautiful backdrop to the colonial architecture found throughout the city.
We immediately set off exploring this beautiful old city and quickly found out that it was much more up to our speed than Ibarra. Otavalo had a fantastic architectural appeal to it’s beautiful colonial buildings, antique storefronts with large glass windows, ancient doorways with antique locals eying the scene, cobblestone streets, and beautifully dressed Ecuadorian men and women adorned in traditional garb. Otavalo and it’s residents, or Otavaleño, were warm and welcoming people in every interaction we had. I walked right into a tailor’s shop and asked if I could photograph his hands for a project I dreamed up, and without even thinking about it he replied “Si, claro”. Most Otaveño were indigenous, and held onto the customary ways of their culture and predecessors. I felt like a giant amongst the crowd when walking around the noticeably shorter residents, towering over the beautiful faces that were milling about. Their tales were silently told through the deep wrinkles on their honest faces, their piercing eyes, and hardened hands. We instantly melted into the plazas that housed brightly colored churches, open air markets, and food mercados.
My favorite place to be when traveling is surrounded by traditional food. Whether it’s put onto a plate and ready to eat or in it’s most simple, uncooked form on a wooden table waiting to be bought or traded for, food has a special place in my belly. I could spend an entire day, sunrise to sunset, in the depths of a lively mercado watching the action. There isn’t a better place to get the freshest cuts of meat, large bundles of fruits and vegetables, or a quick set lunch of real, whole foods cooked in front of your eyes. Mercados are places that have some of the most honest and genuine transactions on the planet. Food sustains life, and life is preserved through it’s trade in this part of the world. Fiberglass ceilings in the depths of the mercados of Otavalo filtered light in such a way that made my images seem almost ethereal. Every day Otalveño go to these markets to get the ingredients they need for home cooked meals, to grab a quick al muerza, or set up shop to sustain a living from the produce themselves or their family cultivates in the surrounding lands. It’s not uncommon to see a short, sturdy, weathered Otalveña walk past your side with a large bag of potatoes slung over her shoulder and a live chicken under her arm. This mercado had all the ingredients needed to capture my attention, and I would find any excuse to go back to try and soak in that scene.
The first whole day we had in Otavalo was actually spent getting out of the city and up into the mountains. We read that there was an easy way to get to a lake for a birds eye view of Cotacachi, one of the highest peaks in the area. We made our way back to the bus station to get a ride to a tiny village, transferred to a collectivo, and went up into a national park and recreational area. Our gentle old driver dropped us off on the shore of a deep blue colored lake that lives in the crater of a past eruption that surely shook the earth. The deal we struck with the driver was to swing back in around 4 or 5 hours to pick us up lakeside where he left us. The area looked pretty desolate and carried the low season mid-week pace of life without another soul sight. We hiked up a short trail to a restaurant that was perched on a cliff overlooking the lake and took in a sweeping view of the lake and volcano. There weren’t any signs of life at the establishment, so we continued along the driveway and out to the road to hike around the lake for a while. Aside from the occasional hacienda here and there, there was not much life around this stunning setting. We played in the sun for a few hours, watching the colors of the water change with passing clouds. We killed some more time exploring what felt like abandoned homesteads, imagining what living at such a high altitude would be like. Eventually we made our way back to our pick up point, and sure enough our driver had returned to take us back into town to catch a bus back to Otavalo. A casual glance in a mirror let me know that I had severely burned my face in the high altitude sun after a mere 2 hours of partial exposure.
The next day was the big day for our adventures in Otavalo, and it was actually the prime reason we decided to visit the area. On every Saturday the city becomes inundated with families toting extremely large sacks full of mostly hand made textiles, clothing, sculptures, souvenirs, and livestock to sell to the masses. Yes, I wrote livestock. We knew beforehand that the live animal market was going to be the highlight of our visit to the fertile valley so we came emotionally prepared. The dusty streets at 6AM were filled with hundreds of Ecuadorians marching uphill to either shop for or show off their prized pigs, sheep, chickens, cows, ducks, and guinea pigs to prospective buyers. The scene looked a little intimidating from afar; ahead of us was a sea of pea green fedoras with a few small open veins of earth that let shoppers into the swollen field of the animal peddlers. Tiny but tough Otavaleño tried to maneuver freshly purchased 100+ pound pigs while every extremity of live chickens were being examined with the kind of eyes normally found near the sales rack of TJ Maxx. Cars would come to a halt to let a newly purchased cow get walked across the intersection or to drop off their elders curbside. After putting down a few fresh made doughnuts, we gathered up the courage to proceeded into the masses. Visually, there was too much to process in the moment. There were hundreds of people tightly stationed next to their live produce, bartering and haggling over prices hoping to find some middle ground and make the coveted sale. It was hard to create images in the harsh light while being nudged in the single file fashion we found ourselves in. It was also hard to get a great snap while constantly being offered animals by the men and women lining the path. I wasn’t sure what two backpackers would do with a bag full of live guinea pigs, but that question was never approached. We witnessed several dozen transactions take place, watching the magic of hand to hand sales transpiring just as they always have been. Money was exchanged usually without the hint of a smile, just business as usual.
The market was separated into several different zones that were distinguished by which type of animal you were looking for. The entry area seemed to be delegated for small furry and feathery animals. As we transitioned into an area with a little more breathing room we had found ourselves in the pork isle. Here there were pigs of all sizes to buy, including massive 200 lb porkers that seemed to consistently have about a dozen people looking over them wondering if they should commit or not. After we left the pig zone we encountered sheep in clusters of 6 or so. Farmers were showing off their wool and healthy limbs to anyone who gave so much as a glance their way. A fence separated the sheep from the cattle corner where we watched how naturally the sellers could handle a group of cows without any assistance. Horses were near the end of the field and were accompanied by cowboys wearing tall hats and earthy colored slacks. Just above this cash only commerce area were booths selling traditional Ecuadorian breakfasts consisting of meaty soups and plates of papas y carne. Elissa and I sat up on the hill and watched the entire market operate as a whole, observing how all the small parts and gears somehow created a perfect harmony of trade. We were watching a way of life that is so far from westernized approaches of buying food but made so much more sense than how food is produced and sold where we’re from. The practices may seem cruel or unusual to our western ways, but this economy has existed longer than we have been established as a country, and it still operates on the same basic level. Travel is fostered by moments like these, where you are an infinite distance away from your comfort zone in life, observing traditions first hand that satisfy your appetite for wanderlust but make it want more in the same breath. Authenticity breeds the urge to travel, and to see something real and in the flesh. ( I scratched the surface on this experience in a weekly photo challenge a while back, click the link to check it out theadventuresofadr.com/2012/10/26/weekly-photo-challenge-foreign/ ).
On our last spin through this open air animal market Elissa bought a piece of hand made rope a woman was selling for the purpose of transporting your newly purchased 4 legged item under normal circumstances. For her, it was an authentic souvenir that could also be purposefully used along our travels if need be. We walked back down the cobblestone roads lined with numerous stalls with handmade jewelry and made our way towards the center of town. The weekends engulf the city, turning a huge footprint of the streets into one big hand made goods market. We had our eyes set on purchasing a llama blanket, amongst other gifts for family members back stateside. Stalls were swallowing up entire roads as we approached the main market in the Plaza de los Ponchos. The plaza was designed by a Dutch architect in the 70’s and had hundreds of mushroom shaped awnings coming out of the ground, acting as stalls for purveyors to set up their tables with a little protection from the elements. We shopped around and noted the prices of items in different stalls until we figured out where the bargains lived. Everyone at the market was chatty, hoping to score a sale amidst a sea of other stalls with similar items. We took ages to decide on which beautifully hand carved gourds depicting indigenous Ecuadorian tales told through images to gift to our loved ones. After getting our holiday shopping done, we hung around to watch the market break down. Like magic, we saw huge bundles of blankets, wool sweaters, hats, toys, jewelry, costumes, and musical instruments disappear in a methodical fashion. Large burlap sacks the size of refrigerators packed with fabric were carried on the backs of tiny Otavelño across the market and loaded onto old flatbed trucks. In a little under an hour the entire market was nearly empty from the hundreds of stalls that inundated the plaza earlier that day.
Otavalo was a memorable stop along our lengthy trail through Latin America. I would highly recommend that anyone going near Quito should set a few days aside to make the trip to Otavalo. Seeing the age-old ways of the weekend market through our own eyes enhanced our definition of Ecuadorian culture. The differences between cultures are a pertinent part of what makes this world a beautiful place to explore and discover.
I can’t help but remember some sadness when we traveling south from Laguna De La Cocha and approaching the final destination of our journey in Colombia. A worn in white sedan was our collectivo ride from the lakeside village to Ipiales, which was a border town between Colombia and Ecuador. The mood was somber in my head, and felt like I was watching the last grains of sand disappear from an hourglass that I had secretly hoped would be full forever. I didn’t want to accept the fact that our adventure in this country was almost up. Perhaps it was because the previous two and half months felt like a full years worth of memories, and in my heart I knew Colombia had a lot more to give. This is one of the bittersweet aspects of travel when facing the inevitable departure that looms ahead in plain sight. It makes your heart rush in a way that you can’t enjoy but can’t despise either. You hate leaving it behind, but you love the excuse to come back for more. In a way it’s like you are closing a door but deliberately leaving it unlocked for another moment in time.
Ipiales itself was not something worth writing about from the little we saw. It was a border town by nature, and did not have much for outsiders to see in the town itself other than transfer modes of transportation towards points unknown. I’ve heard that some towns accessible in the area have some great views and abundant natural resources, but we were not entertaining the idea of hunting for treasure at the time. The main attraction to this town was the ethereal basilica of Las Lajas, and that was the only thing on our agenda. We caught a cab from the large bus station hub and within minutes we were heading away from the border along quiet windy roads descending down the plateau and into a valley. Small houses and little plots of cultivated land occupied this sleepy area as our road kept weaving down into lower lands. Eventually, a small gorge with buildings on either side indicated that we were getting into the little village surrounding the basilica. Our collectivo driver dropped us off, and indicated where lodging could be found. We stumbled into one of the few hotels that appeared to be open during this slow time of year, which also happened to be called “Hotel Dan”. The universe was too obvious at times, and we checked into our accommodations immediately. It was getting a dark at that time, so we decided to stroll through town and take a look at the church we’ve been hearing about.
The town we explored almost felt abandoned. There were small shops with their doors open and lights on, but appeared to be catering to the locals that lived there year round. Small groups of children were playing soccer on beautiful cobblestone walking streets, with the faint sound of Latin music playing out of open windows. The rows of buildings that lined the streets all appeared to be targeting large groups of tourist crowds, which were noticeably missing, thus almost every single one was closed and didn’t look like they were going to open until their customer base returned. The buildings were typical of the Spanish Colonial style architecture, with some large church like structures that appeared to be weathering away without much indication of plans for restoration. My heart pined to explore past it’s huge, old wooden doors to see what kind of history was held within it’s arched concrete walls. A path meandered down into the gorge where the church was located, and we soon found ourselves staring in awe at the sight in front of us.
Santuario de Las Lajas is an architectural masterpiece that almost seems like it’s out of place in a random valley of Colombia, yet it’s presence is cemented in history in the green gorge that it’s massive arches span across. Legend has it that in the 1700’s, a mother named Maria and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were seeking shelter in an epic thunderstorm in between the large flat rocks, or “Lajas”. During the storm, her daughter Rosa noticed an image on one of the rocks that appeared to be the Virgin Mary, and she spoke to her mother to point it out, which is the first recorded miracle associated with this location. Since then, churches have been built around the rock with the image, and believers long and far travel to Las Lajas to ask for a miracle of their own. Donations from fellow worshipers and families looking for miracles have been funding the multiple versions of the churches, and the current Gothic Revival style showpiece was constructed slowly between 1916-1949 in the same manner. The path leading up to and around the church was covered in plaques of miracles that families were hoping that would come true. There must have been thousands cemented into the earth with countless families asking for help or thanking for the miracles that were performed. I can only imagine the great lengths these families would travel to this site to ask for help in their trying times, making the pilgrimage from countries that were days away by bus.
The church was absolutely phenomenal in both grandeur and it’s physical setting. It rises about 100 meters above the fast moving muddy waters of the Guaitara River below, and has an arched bridge that spans the entire width of the canyon. The church’s color scheme was probably what made it so attractive to my eyes, rising from the green valley in earthy grey tones and stark white highlights. It was one of those places where your inner voice was instantly hushed by the presence of this sacred site. Soaring stain glass windows depicting scenes from the bible were protected by ornate iron gates. Angels were on every pillar of the bridge spanning the gorge, each of them playing a musical instrument. I was particularly drawn to the one playing the saxophone for some reason. The large wooden doors to the church opened with ease and unveiled the sacred space hidden within. Gold leafed arches, cavernous ceilings, cream colored walls, and beautiful chandeliers were a feast for the eyes. The alter was positioned directly in front of the very rock that the Virgin Mary’s image was first seen by the young Rosa back in the 1700’s. With a bit of imagination, it was possible to see the shape of the sacred icon. We explored the church while the sun set behind the hills and were eventually notified that the church was getting locked up. We left, leaving the rest of the exploring for the morning and sought some hot food wherever we could find it.
In the morning, we woke up extra early to catch the morning light on the church and the valley. We wandered over the arched bridge and up a path to get a glimpse at the church in it’s setting from the top of the gorge. The path went past some small dwellings planted on the top of the hillside, afforded views of a tall waterfall, and eventually up to a great lookout point where we were the only ones soaking in the stunning view. There was a small local boy who appeared above us and would get our attention by throwing flowers, then disappear when we would try an interact. I could only imagine what growing up in an isolated town like this could be like for him or any kid in this area. We walked back down to the church and found a different path around the opposite side that led us up into the hidden parts of the village. There, we encountered older women, presumably llama farmers, tending their animals and doing chores. One lady had about 6 kittens outside of her house, and she spoke with us briefly asking us if we wanted a cat. It seemed to be an older crowd in this village, and I’m guessing that the younger generation left for other opportunities a while ago. Small empty plazas certainly breathed life still, but that was only an assumption of my own made by observation and imagination.
After getting our fill of the town, we gathered our belongings and decided it was time to part. We went through our inventory to make sure we had everything we needed and nothing we shouldn’t have, and went on our way once again. Another cab ride back to Ipiales brought us back to the main station, where we bought our last Colombian treats before hopping on a van headed for the border. Colombia gave us to some of our most treasured memories of travels to date. We had been in almost every climate and environment imaginable on earth in this warm and welcoming country. We had experienced a life where the desert meets the Caribbean, hiked up to dizzying heights in the highland alpine climates, explored waterfalls within the Amazon, snorkeled in coral reefs off a Caribbean island, lived the slow life in a sweaty isolated river village, got a taste of high altitude Latin metropolitan life in Bogota, visited cloud forests and coffee farms, went paragliding in tobacco country, received astronomy free astronomy lessons in the desert, and met some of the warmest and friendliest folks on the planet. In case you haven’t noticed, we loved Colombia and hope that a return trip is in the cards for us somewhere down the line. Adios Colombia! Te queremos!
I rarely use this medium for anything outside of travel journalism and photography, but I just read something that made me feel compelled to alter my course for a moment. In a brief moment of boredom, I looked at Facebook on my phone. The first post that came up was from a good friend of mine named Liam from back home in Upstate New York. Some very honest words caught my eye, and I realized that he was in a very tricky situation that could be solved both with professional medical treatment.. and a bit of generosity. Liam tore his ACL on wet grass and has been out of pocket since. Anyone who’s ever suffered a knee injury can tell you that it is painful, debilitating, and downright depressing. I sustained a knee injury when I was 16 that took me out of the rest of snowboarding season and halfway through summer, and it’s one that still slows me down (increasingly so as I get older).
Liam is the kind of person that will do whatever he can to help out a friend in need. It’s not something that I would vouch for unless I knew it to be true. Throughout the years he’s shown that he’s willing to stand up for his friends and to be there when they fumble and fall. Liam’s job, which he recently started, is in sales and is highly based on commission for take home pay. New York state has laws to support those temporarily injured who cannot work, but they fail to factor in the manner by which the sales workforce earns a living: commission. The result is very unfavorable for Liam, who now has a surgery looming for which he’s not sure how he’s going to cover.
Pending MRI’s, copays, and the general cost of living are looming in the near future. In this situation, Liam found the courage to put out his hat and ask for help, which I can imagine is a lot harder to do than one would think. In order to help pay for this procedure, he is looking for anyone who has any spare funds to help him take the first step towards getting his ACL surgery. He’s set his goal very modestly at $500.00 and would appreciate help more than you will ever know. I have almost 10,000 followers on this blog. If each of you gave a nickle that goal can be reached. I know that is not how it works, but the math is there. I personally am helping him get $100 closer towards that operating table, and would be genuinely touched if any of you stepped up to the plate and gave to a stranger who happens to be a good friend of mine. At this time, all he needs for this goal is $170.00, but obviously could use a lot more than that in the upcoming months to help him through recovery and future medical expenses.
Please click on the link to help Liam reach his goal of getting back on his feet again! Get better Liam!
Our haggling with the collectivo driver may have cost me my boots. This was the only time in the trip where one of my possessions, albeit one of the most important pieces of equipment, disappeared from my sight. I had made the mistake of tying my hiking boots to my backpack in the parking lot of the mercado in Mocoa, forgetting the golden rule of traveling in the developing world: keep your gear locked up or on your body. The price the driver started off with was a bit elevated, as expected, and Ilse was determined to pay the real price for the 6 hour trip between Mocoa and our destination. Eventually the driver gave in and we tossed our gear on the roof of the truck, leaving his ayudante to secure our packs without any supervision. We had about 30 minutes to kill prior to departure and spent it wandering around the mercado. That’s when my boots disappeared from my bag.
When our truck was ready to take off, they packed us three backpackers in the bed of the pickup truck. It was equipped with hand crafted with wooden benches, a metal frame, and a zippered thick tarp that covered us from elements for the long journey ahead. We took off, leaving a dusty mercado behind us. In front of our pickup truck was a meandering asphalt path ascending into the massive monolith ahead, disappearing and reappearing through the thick green canopy of the mountains. The path we were going on was coined “El Trampolina de la Muerte”, which translates to “The Trampoline of Death”. This road, much like Bolivia’s famed “Death Road”, is known for it’s perilous plunges on a path cut wide enough for one vehicle in more places than most would care to see. Add to the equation extremely thick, foggy conditions, full sized Colombian tour buses packed with passengers, and boomerang bends shored up by stakes with yellow “caucion” tape alongside the contours of jagged, southern Colombian mountain passes. All of these elements equate to a memorable ride at the very least.
The journey started on paved roads rose gently up into the green vegetation of the lush mountain rainforest with lazy turns and beautiful views. Eventually the pavement came to an end and was replaced by gravel padding the path between us and our destination. The temperature began to drop as we climbed higher into the mountains, and road signs began to warn us that the fun parts lay ahead. True to it’s name, the road became disconcertingly narrow, with blind sided turns exposing 2 way traffic on roads built for one. Our brakes slammed on the loose gravel without warning, bringing our truck to a sliding halt every time another vehicle’s nose appeared around a tight corner. There were several instances where I was genuinely afraid that we were going to have a fender bender, or worse. The area was becoming extremely remote, with just the occasional structure or half stocked bodega on a pull off every 20 minutes or so. The fog collected in an extremely thick grey blanket, limiting our field of vision ahead of our steel chariot. The vertical bedrock walls were decorated with hundreds of makeshift memorials along this honest road. Each elaborate cross was probably made from someone’s relatives or lovers, and each shiny plaque was a sobering reminder of our own mortality. Much like other situations we’ve been in, a sense of trust that all things were going to work out was in our pickup truck that day, and we knew would get to where we needed to go.
When we made it through the pass and began descending into the valleys an overwhelming sense of peace remained throughout my body and mind. There was nothing but smooth, worn pavement weaving down through the mountain valleys. The sun would break apart the clouds exposing villages tucked into the liveable areas of the green, jagged landscape. After a brief set lunch and a few more stops we arrived in La Laguna de la Cocha. We jumped off the truck, grabbed our bags, and said adios to the truck that carried us across that stretch of land. We found a family run hotel/guest house that would work for the night and immediately went to the lake to explore. Wild chickens roamed on the side of the road in this sleepy, slow village. Horse drawn hand made wooden carts were a normalcy for the locals, but for us the click-clack of the hooves and the gentle smile from the driver was a beautiful moment in time. Small bakeries and restaurants kept their doors open for passers by, and rubber boots and large wooden handled steel hoes were common work attire.
Green, grassy fields were kept company by cows nursing their calves and grazing at the same time. We quickly came upon a wooden house that looked almost Swiss in design. It’s multi colored coats of paint perfectly accentuated the European style architecture, and it’s balconies and hanging boxes were overflowing with beautiful flowers dripping down towards the ground. A small, slow moving stream cut through the verdant ground, reflecting a perfect image of the entire landscape on it’s surface. Chickens walked around in backyards casually pecking the ground for sustinence. The imagery was over the top and charming at the same time. Ramshackle wooden houses almost smiled at us as we walked by, inviting us in on their secret to contentment. The stream became dotted with dozens of hand made, brightly colored wooden boats, sitting calmly in the slow current. Occasionally a simple wooden footbridge would cross the stream from the main road as an easement to the homes built on the quiet side of the water. The wooden crafts became increasingly present as we got into town and before long there wasn’t an empty space along the banks of the stream for another boat to tie up to. Restaurants, tourist shops, and tents selling handmade goods lined the main street of the village of this small, quaint alpine village.
We joined another group of Colombian tourists in hiring a boat to take us around the lake, which made the trip feel more like a water collectivo ride than a private tour in every best way possible. In all directions there were green hillsides and green mountains breathing in the cool, damp air that only a thunderstorm can leave behind. The only stop on the tour was Isla Corota, which is an island in the lake that Colombia’s smallest national park. We followed our driver off the dock and straight towards the snack stand, where he ordered what I can only describe as a Colombian hot toddy. These concoctions were puzzlingly delicious. The odd combination of aguardiente and passion fruit was so perfect that I couldn’t believe it tasted that good. We each had a cup and then went directly into the chapel to view the alter. It was lit up with neon blue lights and had a lot of detailed woodwork throughout, but was completely vacant at the time we were there. The park itself was not allowing entry because it was too late in the day, so we didn’t get a chance to take a walk through the trails of the evergreen cloud forest. They are only found in areas shrouded with fog and mist, and this lake had just that.
We hopped back on the boat and watched dark, ominous looking clouds oscillate in slow motion while the sun disappeared behind the mountaintops. There were small floating houses with long wooden docks alongside of a shallow reed area of the lake where fisherman farmed the lakes bounties. The sun going behind the horizon was epic that night, and our boat slowly cruised back to the little town. We hopped off, said farewell to our compadres, and grabbed trout dinners at what appeared to be the only restaurant open that night. We had the place to ourselves, had a few cervezas, and listened to the pouring rain outside. After dinner it became obvious that walking for 30 minutes in the rain was not an option, so we had to hire a moto to take us individually back to the hotel. Tired and wet, we called it a night. It was one of those days that was longer than it felt but shorter than it was meant to be, and I wished we could have squeezed out another hour or two to satisfy my insatiable desire for hanging onto the feeling of truly being alive.
Ilse continued on her way to Ecuador early the next morning, so we bid our farewells. Elissa and I decided to spend some more time exploring the little village, so we went back into town to soak in some more pretty colored buildings and see how the town operated during it’s daily routine. Children were helping their parents with chores like chopping wood and bringing in the daily catch, because it seemed that school was not in session. Boats groaned slowly past us while we peered into windows of supply shops, and seemingly abandoned houses. Tables and chairs were set up waiting for the home owners to come back and wipe the dust off. The town was quiet, still, and beautiful on another tranquil day. We found a restaurant that appeared to be open, wandered inside, and made some noise until the owner appeared from behind a door where the living quarters were. We had a private breakfast upstairs on a deck overlooking one of the streams that fed the lake and connected the town. Pure bliss ensued.
After collecting ourselves and grabbing some snacks for the road, we hunted down a collectivo that would take us to our next hub of Pasto. Like any travel in this part of the world, there was a transfer or two before we would get to where we needed to go. At this point, we were nearing our departure with Colombia, and the feeling was reminiscent of when you are preparing yourself to say goodbye to a good friend that you secretly hoped would be within a stone’s throw away from wherever you were for the rest of time. The road continued on as the landscape swept past the open windows of our crammed little car. Colombian music fell out of the tired speakers, and we cruised further south towards Pasto. We had one more night before we committed to our eminent departure.
Hot, dry wind blew through the our collectivo’s windows and onto our tired, red faces en route to Nieva. We were shoulder-to-shoulder in a van jam packed with Colombians, weaving through traffic in only ways cheap taxi drivers can replicate under chaotic conditions, watching tired, crumbly buildings scroll past. Elissa was trying to find herself in the best position to catch the breeze by hanging her head near the open window when her hat blew off of her head and onto the road. We were stuck in the back of the van watching the hat slowly get smaller and smaller as we pulled away. We motioned to the driver to stop and were happy to look back and see that a pedestrian behind us saw what had happened and walked into traffic to get the hat. We then watched in disbelief as he examined at the hat, tucked it under his arm and began walking away with his new possession. This was upsetting of course, because being in the middle of nowhere it might not be the best time or place to find a suitable replacement hat. Seeing this unfold, a woman in our van seated adjacent to the door got out, got the man’s attention who took the hat, and used her foreign tongue to get him to return it back into our hands with a big, concerned smile. The overall friendliness of the people was a part of Colombia that kept showcasing itself, and truly drove the point home time and time again. We thanked the woman up and down for her efforts who shrugged it off as no big deal. Many hours, landscapes, and transportation switches later, we arrived in the foothills of San Agustin in the Southwestern part of Colombia.
The desert, along with the efforts to reach our destination, took a lot out of us physically. Those who’ve engaged in long term backpacking trips understand the tipping point between the need to feed your soul’s insatiable hunger for exploration and giving your mind, body, and heart some much needed R&R. We chose San Augustin to take a small break, get some rest, and be at peace with the idea of doing nothing for just a day or two. We scoped out a fantastic hostel outside of town built by Swiss expats, comprised of thatch roofed buildings with bunks, a nice grassy area to lay down on, a fire pit, and a great outdoor cooking kitchen (we also experienced more harsh realities of the open outdoor kitchen concept when someone- or something- took a strong proclivity towards the bag of marshmallows we bought for the campfire. After a short stroll through town we returned to find out the entire bag had gone missing). It was a small hike to get to and from the village, but isolation was what we were after in order to find some solace and take a break. San Agustin is best known for it’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, which attract tourists from all over the world. These protected locations boast hundreds of sculptures carved out in stone that give us some insight on the indigenous cultures that came before Spanish and modern day Colombian influences. The statues were somewhat Easter Islandy in appearance, on a much smaller scale. We heard it was pretty worthwhile to see, but we did not wind up prioritizing any of them. We instead bought lots of food, made some hearty meals, and met some travelers from Europe who wound up going the same direction we were headed. Topics of discussion included life paths, philosophy, consciousness, and travel highlights- as usual.
The following day we were all bound for Mocoa, which is a small city situated partly within the Amazon. It’s one of the few locations in Colombia that is encapsulated within the footprint of the Amazon rainforest, and has relatively no risk of malaria to boot! Our collectivo dropped us off in a bustling mercado consisting of old brick buildings and stalls selling everything from sombreros, used shoes, food, tools, and every cut of meat imaginable. This is always one of the most vulnerable parts of travel; arriving at a new destination, only to be met by a sea of hungry cab drivers eying you like hawks watching their prey, waiting to see what kind of paydirt they can get from you based upon your obvious lack of knowledge of how much a fare should actually be. We found what we thought was a reasonable deal to get to our hostel and took off. There was a police barricade in the middle of the road en route to our new home, which was placed to protect drivers from a protest amongst collectivo drivers. They were standing together for an increase in their wages, or perhaps to increase their pay for hop-on-hop-off services for set routes. The police gave us all the once over before allowing our cab to pass and keep moving along. We arrived at the Dutch run Casa del Rio, which was a great little hostel sitting right on the edge of one of the hundreds of beautifully clean, turquoise rivers this part of the world seemed to sprout. The river had families and small children playing and splashing in the crisp, translucent waters washing over the smooth edges of the large boulders the frequent flooding moved downstream.
The owner created this hostel because he fell in love with the nature that this underdeveloped and often overlooked area of Colombia has to offer. To go to Mocoa, you have to go well out of the way of the easy route for travelers bound for Ecuador, which is a nicely paved road around some treacherous mountain passes that corners off Mocoa from the southern border of Colombia and Ecuador near Pasto (for the willing, a visit to Mocoa would mean a 10 hour trip to Mocoa, then a 10 hour trip back towards Popoyan to take the easy route to Pasto, thus isolating it from most visitors; we chose a different road to Pasto, which I’ll elaborate on in the next post). The communal building and entrance had a 4 foot high wall to divert the water from the river to protect itself against the frequent flooding that the region can have during rainy seasons. There were banana trees dripping with little green fruits on the path between the office and our bungalows, complete with a wooden footbridge over a seemingly tame stream about ten feet below. The owner of this hostel also brought tennis to the area, and had the only tennis courts in this part of the world for Colombians to play on. He was very informative on the lay of the land, and told us about his family of monkeys that frequently visited the hostel, usually after the fresh bananas hanging from a hook outside of the kitchen.
After doing a bit of research we narrowed down the options of the dozen plus hiking routes that would help us explore all that the fringe of the Amazon had to offer. Elissa and I were pretty eager to check out a river called Fin del Mundo to enjoy some spectacular swimming holes in the hot, sticky air that seemed to settle in around 11AM every day. After flagging down a collectivo that was completely full, the driver told us to get on anyway. We mounted our feet on the bumper and hung on to a welded metal bracket shortly before we started going 100+ kilometers per hour down the road. Our driver stopped in front of a sign that had the name of our destination on it, and we gave him a few bucks before he took off out of sight. We got right to work trudging over a huge wooden rope suspension bridge that spanned across a wide, shallow river below. A Colombian man was carrying large pieces of wood from one side to the other without blinking twice at the old bridge that was in a serious state of disrepair. On the far side of the river was his horse, which looked like it had carried a few dozen planks some distance up to this bridge. We passed several houses along the river and eventually had to pay a few bucks to a property owner who was providing an easement to the river. We were instructed to sign in and sign out on a visitors log so that authorities wouldn’t send a search party if we didn’t come back. We hiked uphill for the better part of an hour through forest and jungle on make shift wooden stairs pounded into the muddy earth. Eventually, we encountered he river that we had been seeking and found some beautiful little swimming holes. I decided that a quick jump off a large boulder (I saw a person do this ahead of me, monkey see monkey do) was a great idea, and almost immediately regretted the decision. The drop was a bit larger than I had anticipated, and I didn’t admit it to Elissa, but it actually scared the hell out of me. After shaking the cold water off my skin, we kept going downstream admiring the felled trees, crystal clear water, and fresh natural air that was waiting for us to soak in it’s essence.
The trail was not for the faint of heart, and at times required walking over slick, mossy terrain on the edge of rapid waterfalls careening down onto hard, flat bedrock. I remember thinking how much potential there was for broken limbs on some of these paths while marching behind Colombian families with small children in tow. The stream went from vertical falls to flat, meandering segments that kept company with a lush green forest. Eventually, the faint sound of churning water turned into an omnipresent applause in a large, open rock amphitheater of beauty. There were dozens of Colombians swimming, picnicking, and drinking libations on this perfect afternoon. Teens and young adults were jumping off the 10 foot drop and into the cold, refreshing pool below us. There was a small food shack built into the side of the small gorge, which was puzzling considering how far we were from any sort of roadway. The overall mood was jovial; everyone was there to enjoy the cold, fresh water on a hot, sticky Saturday, and we were part of that same crowd. After soaking in the scene for a few minutes, we pressed onwards, knowing that the biggest attraction was further downstream. More mossy ledges with overhanging trees and damp, wet bedrock wove through the jungle while the stream became smaller, and more condensed. A tiny crowd of people eventually appeared near the end of the trail, and looked like tiny figures in a sea of hazy trees in the far distance beyond them. They were standing on the edge of the 260 foot waterfall, which was also the trail’s namesake, Fin del Mundo, “the end of the world”. It felt dizzying to lay down on the edge, peering over to watch the solid stream of water vaporize on it’s tremendous journey to the surface below. Enormous boulders, probably the size of houses, looked liked tiny glistening pebbles from our vantage point above. A large family enjoyed our curious approach and began chatting us up, gifting us oranges, and eventually insisting that we partake in a large group family photo with them. Colombians are extremely friendly, through and through, and this was certainly the case that day. We hiked back through the falls, jungle, and back to the road to continue on home. And just as you can depend on finding anywhere in Latin America, a woman was waiting at the entrance of the trail making fresh, taffy-like candy that was both gooey and delicious. She was kind enough to let me snap a few shots of the process for an ongoing project of hands around the world.
The next day we did a group hike with our European friends to find some more fun waterfalls hidden in the hills of the rainforest. We talked, sweated, and trekked up through muddy, clay roads, kept company only by the occasional small farm and other hikers. Small, ramshackle homes sat proudly in the sunshine overlooking the river below. More wooden logs carefully installed into the slope helped us climb upwards into the shade created by the thick crowds of trees. The trail split off and we began our descent, hopping down from earth shaped stairs onto wet tree roots, rocks, and mud. The leaves all around us were dripping with moisture, and moss was collecting on trees in areas just out of reach from our hands. The trail was extremely steep, and at times the path became more of an effort to swing from trunks to branches, down onto roots holding the slope together. The air got more moist as we got closer to the water source. Tiny waves of mist floated through the air, illuminated by bolts of light sneaking through gaps in the forest canopy. The first waterfall almost looked fake. It was nestled into the cliff, pouring out onto 3 different levels of flat, smooth rock and splashing its way further into the jungle out of sight. We all took turns standing underneath it while water pelted our heads in full force from the drop above. The water was cold and felt amazing when contrasted against the hot, sticky air around us.
The temperature dropped about 15 degrees as we approached the large falls. There had been lots of rain the night before (one of the loudest thunderstorms I’ve heard) and the volume of water was absolutely bursting off of the cliff. The force of the water falling created a constant wind full of moisture that pulsated rhythmically like a old engine idling. The spray kept blurring my lense, and in order to grab any sort of image I had to set up, wipe the lens, and quickly snap 1 shot before repeating the entire process over again. Stefan decided to try and walk behind the falls, and disappeared shortly afterwards. I followed suit, but noticed that the closer I became to where the falls met the earth, the windier and more intense the air became. One slip would send me into a wall of water pounding down into either rock or water, I couldn’t tell. I bailed on the idea altogether, and saw Stefan appear on the other side with a large smile. We played in the water for a short while before heading back home to prepare a large vegetarian feast.
Mocoa treated us beyond well, and was a very great pocket of Colombia to explore and get to know. The people who lived out here survived in rural isolation, but they also had a very serene setting to find themselves isolated within. If we didn’t feel the urge to press on (we had been in Colombia over 2 months at this stage) we probably would have found a few more trails to hike, a few more vistas to soak in, and a had a few more trips to the mercado to buy fresh, delicious food to feast on. But the road was calling, and that familiar tune kept us marching on.