Quito by: Anik


Considering that big cities haven’t been our favorite places to visit, objectively speaking, Quito has been the most beautiful city we’ve seen.  It’s old, warm, and it makes for excellent camera shots.

Our primary reason for going to Quito was that my mom was flying in for a 2 week visit and we were to fly to the Galapagos islands from the Quito airport.  We found a hostel named “The Secret Garden”.  It hosted a rooftop terrace that greeted us with panoramic views of the city which made us question if our eyes were playing tricks on us.


The owners were Australian and had a 10 year old boy, Thomas, who became Simon’s instant friend.  Over the next two days, we would spend a fair amount of time up on this terrace, sipping weak coffee, sipping wine from a box, and reading and writing as the kids were taking spanish lessons.


My mom flew in late the first night and I convinced Darin that I would drive the hour through the city to go pick her up as there was no need for all of us, including car sick prone Marco to spend over 2 hours in the van.  Simon and I set off and almost immediately got lost.  After driving on a deserted highway which turned out to be completely closed and rolling through a neighborhood thick with the risk of danger, we finally found out way.  Once we made it safely, Simon said “mommy, you sure said SHIT a lot on that drive…”.

Just like picking Tierra up from the Cartagena airport, greeting my mom in Quito felt excitingly surreal.  After showing my Palm Springs cultured mom the bunk beds and mini electric shower heater, we went to bed laughing.

The next day, we spent hours walking through the city, with my mom strong as a bull despite the thin air which hosts the world’s second highest capital city at nearly 10,000 feet.


We climbed to the top of Quito’s basilica and marveled at the bird’s eye view of the city.


We had a basic almuerzo of comida tipica, which once again, consisted of chicken, rice, plantain, and homini.  It’s so good, but that ship has sailed and we’re craving something different.

We bought coca leaf from a street vendor yelling “coca! coca! coca!”.  Apparently the dried bay leaf looking coca works miracles for altitude sickness and acclimation.  Cotopaxi’s 19,000 ft (and change) summit push might serve as our double blind study.  The vendor sell coca candy, coca tea and pure leaf that you’re suppose to chew, which is what we went with.  We figure it should be best in its’ purest form.


We decided to go out for a nice dinner that night, as another chicken meal wasn’t gonna cut it.  We went to the neighborhood of La Ronda, the oldest and said to be quaintest area of Quito.  It was beautiful but the restaurants were far from quaint and the food surprisingly bad.  After leaving a few restaurants, we ended up in a karaoke sort of bar, with music so loud we couldn’t talk.  Half of our order failed to come, and we ended up eating rolled up deli cheese and baloney  held by toothpicks. We were given wine that tasted like a joke and realized it just wasn’t gonna happen. At this point, we needed to head back to bed for our 3:30am wake up call and resorted to eating a cold piece of pizza and strawberry soda from a street vendor.

For those of us accustomed to the creative culinary experience that Portland provides, we’re learning to be flexible and grateful for whatever comida we’re presented with.  Our van is parked in Quito, waiting for us on our return from the Galapagos, I think we’ll take in one last glimpse of this gorgeous city and and hit the road south…if Cotopaxi’s rainy forecast makes room for us.


Balancing between two hemispheres by: Anik

El Mitad del mundo

El Mitad del mundo


We let loose a bit and spent one night on Laguna San Pablo, outside of Otavalo, at a lake side lodge called Hosteria Puerto lago. We very much felt spoiled by the tennis court, paddle boats, fireplaces, and nice restaurant. My 4 mile run over to the lake seemed unusual in those parts, as a dozen people slowed down or stopped to snap a picture of my less than impressive running.




By the time “check out” came, we were missing life in our van and looking forward to getting lost in self sufficiency for a while.

We crossed the equator in the early afternoon. We spent some time goofing around with cheesy pictures, once again, Marco’s was the picture of the day.



Before leaving on this trip, we’d intended on naming our van at the equator but we weren’t feeling it. We’ve decided to let the van name itself in due time, at which point we’ll all be ready.

The equator was quite fascinating. A young man from the non profit, Quitsato.org, an integral project focused on studying the equatorial line’s archeological sites with the application of satellite technology, filled us in on everything relating to the Mitad Del Mundo. He spoke about the perspective of balance in relation to our future. He spoke of the line between the two hemispheres as appealing to a conscience of balance, union, and reciprocity. At the risk of sounding a bit new age, we all did feel a very good sort of “connected and grounded” energy on this site. As Latin Americans would put it, it was “chevre”.


We continued on, to our destination, passing through a few small towns, one of which we stopped in for lunch. The only options for lunch were to step into someones house and sit at one of two picnic tables in the back. For $4.00, we ate soup, rice, chicken, salad, and drank fresh juice…hard to beat.


We had 29 km left to get to Oyacachi, our thermal spring respite for the next few days. The lovely woman, who needed a ride to her town, sat in the back with the kids and helped navigate us through the steep and slow cobble stone roads, and then she dozed off.

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The drive, which took us 2 hours, was at 14,200 feet and winded through what Darin described as being “like Joshua Tree National Park, only on steroids”. Trying to describe the fresh air here would be a futile attempt analogous to trying to describe the ocean.

Volcan Cayambe

Volcan Cayambe



Oyacachi is a very small town in a valley in the middle of nowhere. It borders the Amazon jungle and revolves around its’ lechera route and community run thermal springs.



We camped a few hundred feet from the hot springs, surrounded by mountains and overlooking a river that played its’ music while we slept. In the morning, cold and appreciating the comfort of our van, we watched as most of the people from the area, walked long distances carrying large containers of their cows’ milk on their backs, to be dropped off at the pick up corner by our van. The lechera truck would then come by and pick up the milk to brought to the town’s lechera processing building, which was the size of a large shed. The one and only commercial business, a small tienda sold some amazing homemade drinkable yogurt, that would put any kefir I’ve had to shame.

We spent three days in Oyacachi. We played some seriously fun soccer, which at 13,000 ft, left us all loopy for a while afterward.



We played chess, read, and spent hours in and around the hot springs. The thermal pools were emptied every morning, and refilled with spring water which as Simon put it “somehow even warmed up our hearts”. The only other people we saw at the hot springs were community members bathing and taking their showers, all while washing their clothes. Couples washed each other’s backs and women soaked around shirtless. The boys didn’t know what to do with themselves, trying to be subtle but grinning from ear to ear and pretending to look away as their eyes were stretched further then I’ve seen them. In asking Marco to try to just go with the flow, he responded “I’m trying but I can’t hold it in, I have to look!”.

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We took advantage of the detox opportunity and alternated between the hottest pool we could find and the ice cold river flowing alongside of it, over and over, all while drinking a gallon of water. I wonder how much of the fried Colombian food and beer that care of of?

Darin and Simon threw the frisbee for a while, as a man and his kids watched, fascinated. They finally joined the game and couldn’t get enough of it, laughing and squealing at the idea of the flying disc. In the end, it was obvious that we had to give them our frisbee as a “regalo”. They were thrilled. We later saw them at the soccer field throwing it around, open to the new possibilities this frisbee might bring.


On our last morning in Oyacachi, Darin and I woke up early to go for a run. Our run never accelerated beyond a walk because the altitude made the hilly town feel like a marathon. We left Coyacachi, enthralled with this simple way of life, happy to have “soaked” in it for a while.


Otavalo, Ecuador by: Anik


As soon as we crossed the border into Ecuador, we realized that overlanding in Ecuador would be much faster and easier.  The roads are smooth, fast, and seem much less curvy.  The roads’ life threatening thermometer has cooled off significantly.  In remembering Marco’s 4 episodes of throwing up in the car, we’re hoping to be puke free from here on out.

Within an hour, we were pulled over by the Policia de Ecuador.  Unlike the boisterous, pleasantly curious police in Colombia, these guys were all business.  The 4 police officers approached the van and as the fist one made it to Darin’s window asking for “passaportes”, the second one was opening my door and helping himself to my door pocket’s contents.  He picked up and inspected our first aid kit, hair ties, old wrappers, my glasses, etc…how rude!  As I was biting my tongue, the third officer was knocking every few inches of the length of the passenger side.  I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be intimidating, or if he was trying to find his inner percussionist.  After wanting to know our occupation, our plan, and all the usual, the officer at my door nicely placed everything back where it came from and said “tank yo vary much!”.

The Northern central highlands are mostly farm country, with mountainous fields that look like quilts of greenery.  Their patterns and beauty seem to have the power to grab ahold of our gaze and redefine it.


Our intention was to stop somewhere in the northern highlands but all we saw were farms and a few very strange highway side “resorts” with scary pools and waterslides that looked brittle.  We felt like we needed to just drive further south than we’d planned on, but the driving is so easy here, we travelled in 2 hours what could have taken 2 days in Colombia.

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We spent 5 days in the town of Otavalo at a hostel called Riviera-Sucre, which was basic and comfortable.


morning view from our Hostel Riviera Sucre

morning view from our Hostel Riviera Sucre

We spent our days walking down to the town’s food market, where we ate amazing meals for a dollar.  We were so inspired by the freshness of the food, that we spent most of our time cooking meals that we couldn’t get out of our heads.


The market had the best grapes I’ve ever had, along with corn nuts that blew our minds, and things like the most beautiful bunches of spinach for $0.25.  The meat vendors were plentiful, selling every part of the cow imaginable, sheep heads and whole roasted pigs garnished with tomatoes.






Darin had an inkling for a rib roast.  Even after we figured out how to say it in spanish “rosti de costella”, the butchers had no idea what to make of this cut of meat.  After many attempts to explain what we wanted, Darin ended up behind the counter, holding the giant piece of meat, and helping himself to the butcher’s saw while everyone stared open mouthed.  As we walked away, Simon said “Daddy, you gotta admit, that was a bit ridiculous!”.


Darin carefully cooked his meal and we all hungrily and excitedly sat down to eat.  The first bit of meat revealed something analogous to fresh leather.  We all sat and chewed and chewed and chewed, and still we couldn’t swallow.  We later found out that the beef in Ecuador has a reputation for being tough and not so good.


We spent one afternoon in Cotacachi, a small neighboring town, known for it’s incredibly inexpensive leather.  We’re not really leather people but we did walk away with 4 custom fit belts.  I haven’t owned a leather jacket since 7th grade and I never thought I’d own another one but MY GOSH, I’m so excited about the one I bought.


We drove 10 km east of Cotacachi to Volcan Cuicocha, where the volcano’s crater is drowned out by a beautiful lake.  The dome sits in the middle of the lake, like an island.


The kids and I told stories and played for an hour while Darin ran back to Otavalo.  A tour bus of South American tourists took turns getting their picture taken with Simon and Marco, saying things like “muy lindo, que bonito!”.




We’d been told that saturday is the happening day in Otavalo, with it’s world famous markets, apparently it wasn’t to be missed.  We woke up early saturday morning and took a one dollar taxi ride to the animal market.  Simon had heard about the animal market from a lady at lunch a few days prior, and he wasn’t gonna miss it.  When we got there, we were surrounded by the local Otavalo people who were either selling or buying cows, chickens, pigs, guinea pigs (a frequent source of food, known as “cuy”), rabbits, chics, puppies, geese, ducks, cock fighting roosters, and kittens.


A few days prior, I’d given the kids $5.00 to spend on something at one of the markets.  They’d perused and debated and considered many things, but had decided to wait and see.  When we came across the baby chics at the animal market, Simon asked “cuanto cuestan?” and the man said 4 for a dollar.  The boys, wide eyed and bursting at the seams, were immediately pulling out their money to buy a chick.  When we told them no, they were dumbfounded.  We moved on to the puppies, and when we were told they were $1.00 each, they were 100% ready to buy one.  We left the market with Simon saying “great!  this was my favorite thing on this trip and I can’t even get a souvenir!”.


The Artisan market was by far the best market we’ve ever been to.  I don’t even feel any animosity at the fact that someone, a particular old woman comes to mind, who cut my purse with a box knife but was unable to unload any contents.  I guess she wasn’t prepared for my lightning fast reflexes.  The local craftsmanship is outstanding and incredibly low priced.  We spent hours just weaving in and out of stalls, only to find more stalls that we couldn’t wrap our minds around.  It’s a good thing we’re very limited on space, just saying.


Salento, Cali, and the border of Ecuador By: Anik


During our stay in Salento, we met an American from Bend, Oregon, who had been running “Brunch”, a small restaurant with home base food like waffles, burgers and burritos.  He just happened to tap into the fact that Colombia has a serious peanut butter deficit.  Peanut butter can only be found very occasionally, and when it is, it’s usually something like Jiffy, or Peter Pan or some other hydrogenated oil filled representation.  Well, the owner of Brunch roasts Colombian peanuts and makes and sells muy excellente peanut butter…travelers to Salento should stop into Brunch and buy at least a few containers of Brunch’s peanut butter.

Anyhow, I digress.  Mike, from Brunch suggested that we stop in the city of Buga on our way to Cali to eat his friend’s pizza and sample some the hostel’s microbrews, Holy Water Ale.

On the Way to Buga, we surprised the kids and stopped at the Parque Natural Del Cafe, where we rode rollercoasters, drove bumpercars, and ate popcorn and ice cream.  Marco continued to talk about it days later, ranking his 5 favorite rides in order.



We made it to Hostel Buga, where the pizza was excellent, and the beer may have been better.


Our room for the night was situated between the restaurant and the kitchen.  On weekends, people wait until at least 9 to go out for dinner.  We found ourselves, coming and going to and from the communal shower, half naked, zig zagging between the kitchen staff.  The heat was so intense we had no choice but to sleep with the windows wide open despite the mosquitos, all ready for the buffet of 4 bodies too hot to use any covers.

The following morning, we visited the church in the town square.  While inside the church, Marco pointed to Jesus on the cross and said “who’s that guy?”.  I told him it was Jesus on the cross, to which Marco replied “that doesn’t even look like him!”.  Darin suggested that maybe as a result of his previous concussions, he gained some insight that we never have.


Big cities are a bit complicated.   With any city,  we can’t stay in our van, and can’t leave it parked on the street.  We have to secure overnight parqueadores with appropriate height clearance, which are hard to come by because everyone drives smaller vehicles.  We also usually spend a lot of time trying to find lodging, in the form of hostels, which are acceptable and affordable to stay in as a family.

Because of our city challenges, we considered bypassing Cali but decided we should check it out.  After the usual routine, we found a stylish french hostel, Hostal Todasky, where we made a snack and walked to the local green space.  Here, the kids spent their time in a large tree, testing how high up they could climb and jump without succumbing to multiple fractures.

Hostal Todasky was in the neighborhood of San Antonio, not far from the Centro.  It was the type of neighborhood I would choose to live in if I were a big city dweller.  It was quiet but not drab or boring, the cafes and restaurants seemed small but quality driven.  The streets were short and looked after by the mountain at its’ feet.



Cali is known for its’ salsa and even during the day, the city breathes a rhythm that can be felt all around.  Salsa dancers go out at 11 or midnight without children and they wear clothes that aren’t found in a bag that’s travelled 7 weeks in a Eurovan.  Salsa being out, we walked down to a beyond budget Italian Trattoria, where we succulently wined and dined ourselves while Marco slept on Darin and Simon slept in his chair.  It was delightful.


The following morning, we hiked up to Los Tres Cruces, the three large crosses on the mountain, which overlooks the city.  It was a hot and sticky climb, half of which was over large boulders.  We had a blast.




Pance is a small town, in what’s analogous to “cottage country”.  Cali residents drive to Pance on weekends and flock to the river to frolic and cool off.


We’d seen on another blog (To The Next Journey, TTNJ)  that if we drove to the very end of the road through Pance, we’d find Reserva Castellana.  When we got toward the end of the twisted and rutted road, we could see the closed gate for the finca in question.  The kids and I, outside the van watched Darin attempt to drive it up the “driveway” 4-5 times, while slipping, skidding, and tearing up the yard.



After about 40 minutes and with 4 people pushing, we finally made it up to our camp spot.  The outdated, amazingly located finca was taken care of by one man, who loves it to pieces but can’t keep up with the work.  Our 2 nights and three days at Reserva Castellana were spent without seeing anyone other than the man who ran the place and his esposa.  We shared a meal and wine with them one night, and in return they loaded us up with limes, lemons, and bananas freshly picked on the property.


We swam in the river, read, did laundry, and cooked chicken cacciatori and chorizo over an open fire.  The kids spent their time in the swing set and “ butt sliding” down the diverted river flowing over the slanted hill.  It was beautiful, secluded, and relaxing at its’ core.  The local dogs, once again, with the help of a few leftovers, guarded our camp day and night.

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We left early in the morning, with the collective mission of safely making it across the border into Ecuador.  Over the past 7 weeks, as we’ve made our way through Colombia, we’ve repeatedly been warned against driving in the department of Narino (between Cali and the border) anytime after dark.  We’ve learned that despite the seemingly short kilometers on the map, Colombian roads make for unpredictable travel times.




After driving 300km, 9 hours later,  at sunset, we pulled into a national park parking lot overlooking El Volcan Galinas.  The security guard (and his dog) made us feel very welcome as we made our camp and cooked rice, beans, and veggie burritos.  We fell asleep reading the never-ending story, all while appreciating the cool breeze that we’d missed in and around Cali.

We woke up at dawn, to the chirping of birds that sounded like they were intentionally trying to crack us up.  We enjoyed our first cup of Don Elias’ coffee.  We’ve wondering why we didn’t buy much more of it.  For the sake of saving time, we stopped in Pasto for breakfast.  Simon went to the restroom and came out saying “that’s a very cool bathroom!  It has toilet paper, it’s clean, and it has an air freshener!”.  He’s becoming so easy to please, just a little toilet paper will do it.

We drove to the border, and stopped in the seedy border town of Ipiallis, where we bought some last minute Colombian goods and got the kids a few empanadas con pollo.

Unlike the very pissed off and unprepared french travelers next to us, “Ils sont tous des connards!”, after some time, red tape and several stamps, we crossed into Ecuador.  As we crossed over, we were stopped by the Ecuador border patrol army, who wanted to know what was on top of the van.  Knowing that produce is a no-no, I conveniently mentioned the surf board and the camping gear but forgot to mention the giant bag of bananas and citrus fruit that our Castellana amiga had given us.


Within a few kilometers, we were engulfed by the dramatic Andes.


Salento by: Anik



We woke up in Salento on Sunday morning to a panoramic view of the mountains of the Zona Cafeteria, where they grow Arabica and Colombiana beans.


Based on our overlander friend Francoise’s recommendation, we were camped at Serrana Eco Hostel, which more than suited our needs.  One of the most comfortable scenario for us is the country setting hostel where we can camp in our van but have use of all the hostel’s amenities.  Generally speaking, the camping fee is only 1/2 the regular hostel price but with luxuries like hot showers and toilets.  Hostel Serrana became our home for a much needed week of laying low and enjoying the scenery.

Hostel La Serrana camping spot

Hostel La Serrana camping spot

The town of Salento, a nice graveled 2 km walk away from our camp, was a very charming town, with the best artisan shops we’ve seen so far.  The town’s pride and attraction comes from its’ proximity to the Valle de Cocora and from its’ local trout farm.  All the restaurants of Salento advertise “Trucha de todos preparacion”.  The large, pink as salmon trout was delicious a la plancha, covered in garlic sauce and smothered in a cheese béchamel sauce with shrimp.  All trout meals come served with a giant chip the size of dinner plate made of local plantain.




Being in the zone cafeteria, one morning we walked down 4 kilometers through mud that sank us to our ankles to the Finca de cafe Don Elias.  Señor Elias greeted us personally and took us on a walking tour of his coffee farm.  He was the sweetest man and his passion for the coffee producing process was contagious.



Throughout the tour, Marco would occasionally ask “Is he gonna be done talking soon?”.  We learned that it takes two years for a newly planted coffee plant to flower.  Two weeks after it flowers, the beans, green in color begin to grow.   5 months later, when the beans are red (Arabica) or yellow (colombiana), they become ripe for picking.



Every 8 years, the plants are cut down to the ground, this allows for a fresh plant to grow and according to Señor Elias, this prevents bitter coffee.

He took us through the outer skin and inner skin removal process, the drying, the roasting, and the grinding.









Our personal tour finished with the enjoyment of a cup of coffee.  Simon said it was the worst coffee he’s had, I’m thinking it was his second sip in ten years.


Colombians from this region are saying that the rainy season is here two months early.  When we heard this, we weren’t phased by it at all, we’re from the northwest eh?  When they say rain here though, they mean, leak producing torrential downpours with thunder and lightening that can last for hours.  These episodes happen daily, sometimes 2-3 times per day.

One beautiful early morning, with the skies clear, we took a 45 minute Willy ride to Valle de Cocora.




Once again, we found ourselves with a map meant for kindergartners and some half assed description of how to find the trail that was to take us 10 km through Cocora, with its’ beautiful Wax Palms.


We had a lovely hike along the river and climbed up and up until it came to our attention that we were on the wrong trail.  By the time we found the trail head we were meant to be on, we’d already hiked 5 km.


As we stepped over the threshold of the anticipated trail, the kids immediately went on strike.  “No way!  If I do this, I’ll die, I’d rather stop breathing!”  We started hiking up and up, reassuring the kids that the ascent would level off soon. One of these days those kids will call our bluff.


The walk up was beautiful, surrounded by Colombia’s national tree, the palma de vera, which are the tallest palms in the world.  We had lunch with a view beyond compare..and, the kids were still mad.



By the time we started back on our descent, the kids were happy again, enjoying Bom Bom Bums, these gum filled lollipops they can’t get enough of.


With about 2 hours left to our descent, the daily torrential downpour started.  We found ourselves crossing sketchy bridges and slip sliding our way down while sinking in the mud up to our mid calves.  The kids were in Indianna Jones mode and by now, loving every minute.



We spent the rest of our days in Salento with morning runs, afternoon walks to town, daily spanish lessons, and amazing evening dinners prepared by our hosts.


A few of the backpackers at the hostel were musicians, Simon spend hours serving as their drummer and jamming with them.


street fun in Salento street fun in Salento


Leaving Salento, we grabbed one more of Marco’s favorite galletas con pepitas.  These very simple but crazy good shortbread like cookies with sprinkles, sold in most panaderias.


Other than going south, we don’t really have a plan for the next week. I guess we’ll just see where our van points its’ nose.  Darin mentioned this morning that he’d like to be at the Equator by March 20th, he’s got Cotopaxi on the brain.


Bogota to Salento by: Darin

We left Bogota on saturday around lunch time.  This way, we knew we wouldn’t encounter extra traffic.  We had 341km/211mi of traveling to get to Salento, in Colombia’s zona cafeteria.

Anik, my directionally impaired navigator, assured me we’d pull into Salento in time for a nice dinner in the van.

It took us 2 hours simply to get out of the city.  Bogota’s infrastructure leaves much to be desired.  The highways still have traffic lights, which causes traffic congestion and amplifies the poor air quality.  The numerous outdated buses and the diesel and gasolina they use, produce a brownish gray haze in the horizon, which would cause them to more than fail North American emission standards.

By 3:30, with all of us starving, we stopped just outside of Bogota for a plate of meat, meat, and a bit more meat.  The kids and I loved it.  Here, the owner of the restaurant advised us to be very cautious on the road because it was the night before Colombia’s big election.

Back in the van, and just a few hours of non technical driving away (as per Anik), we came around a curva peligrosa and were flagged down by the policia.  The reason for our being pulled over was obscure at first, as we were simply following traffic.

At this point in our trip, we’ve been pulled over by many gun carrying muchachos, but this one came around like he was the new sheriff in town.  By now, we have the routine of pulling out the copies of our SOAT insurance, passports, and license down to a science.  When he came to my window, I politely handed our paperwork over with a smile, the universal language.  Apparently, muchacho didn’t speak smile.  In the midst of interrogating us, when he came to the question of where we were headed, he digressed to the big, beautiful, pink trout we had to eat when we got to Salento.  After the small talk was out of the way, he pointed out that we had incurred the “infraction” of speeding through dangerous curves.  As I repeatedly told him that I was just following the cars ahead, the policia kept pointing out the “infraction”.  He started asking what the speed limit was in the US on highways, through curves, on dangerous roads etc…  He then asked “what do you do in Los Estados Unidos when you feel sorry for something (compadecer), when you’re regretful”.   At this point, we realized that he was fishing for a bribe.  We immediately decided to start playing the “No entiendo” card.  He seemed a bit confused and kept repeating himself “what do you do when you get pulled over and you feel sorry for your infraction?”.   After a while, we answered “we get a warning”.

At this point, he asked me to get out of the car and follow him to the radar gun and camera.  He showed me that I had been going 84km in an 80km zone.  I responded that it was only 4km/2mi over and that I was following everyone else.  He got the ticket pad and showed it to me.  I told him “no entiendo” and pointed to the van as I walked back to it.  He let let us sit there a few minutes, at which point he came back to the window and told us that just this once, he’d give us a warning.  I shook his hand and smiled, and we continued onto our non-technical drive.

This surely won’t be the last time we get pulled over.  For now, playing the dumb gringos with the innocent gringo children seems to work just fine.  Note: if traveling abroad, bring children.  They’ll save your ass many times over.

At this point, the drive was on nice smooth, straight, flat, easy roads, just as Anik had predicted.  By 5:30 (getting dark), we reached Ibague and Anik stated “we have 60km…one hour left, I say we go for it”.  This is the point where Anik’s navigation skills failed us utterly.  Luckily, we filled up our 1/4 tank of gas, just in case.

Just as it was getting dark and a thunderstorm was rolling in, the road started winding at an incline not seen in the United States.  Once again, trucks and buses were playing chicken with each other, blind passing around sharp curves.  Half an hour in, and six kilometers later, I asked Anik to look at the GPS on my phone.  At this point, I informed her that the curves were numerous and that this would take much longer than an hour.  It was obvious that we were past the point of no return, no camping, no stopping.

The road went on and on and up and up to 11,000 ft, passing dozens of broken down, smoking tractor trailers with their hoods raised.  Now, remember, this is a two lane highway with steep sharp curves and sheer cliffs, with zona geologica (landslides).  By 9:30pm, we still hadn’t had dinner and still had 40km to go.  With the kids eating crackers, and ours bodies stiff with the breathtaking curves and passes, we drove on.  We arrived in Armenia at 10:30 and decided the 25 km drive to Salento was too much.  We found a hotel on Lonely Planet and drove to that part of town.  Everything in the neighborhood was barred up, including our hotel…

Across the street from the hotel was a food cart called Hamburguesas Caliche’s which turned out to be an indigestion producing, soy sauce laden, giant burger patty, with ham, bacon, cheese and a quail egg, all atop an arepa.  It was really good.



We finally made it to Salento by 11:30, and woke up the following morning in Paradise.


The rain in this regions isn’t rain, it’s as Simon would say “a nightly deluge of water”.  At 2am on the second night, I was awaked by a steady drip of water in the face caused by one of two leaks the van had sprung.  Anik and I shared half of the twin sized bed to make room for the bowls and towels to catch the leaks.  Although the bowls were effective, with our tight quarters, I rolled onto them twice, making for a very moist sleeping bag.

I woke up the following morning, unable to move due to some undefined sickness…aka…diarrhea from a bad piece of fruit or from the soy sauce laden hamburguesas.  I sent Anik into town for silicone to repair the failed silicone in the rain gutter.  Problem solved.

The roads, the leaks, the policias, and the tight quarters have so far made this trip less than dull.   This past week in Salento, having not moved the van, makes me ready again for our push to Ecuador.  I sure hope the van starts.


Bogota! by: Anik



Driving into Bogota is definitely not for those asleep at the wheel.  As we approached the city of 13 million people, the smog seemed to hang over it like a curtain.  Motorcycles were zig zagging around cars, which were swerving around trucks and everyone was honking to make themselves heard through the hazy confusion.


We knew we wanted to be in the Candelaria neighborhood.  This funky, young and hip neighborhood appealed to us the second we saw it.  Finding a secure parking spot for the three days we’d be there was very challenging because of vehicle height restrictions.  We found a sweet couple, who were very excited to have our white space ship parked in their lot.

We walked around for at least an hour trying to find a place to stay.  The sidewalks in Bogota, with their random large and deep holes, would make an american personal injury attorney very happy.  The hostels were dingy, some smelled like incense to mask the stink, some had severely leaky roofs, dripping onto the computer area and beds.  We finally found one that suited our needs and we settled in and decompressed.


We took a long cab ride which only cost us 2 dollars and ended up at a Taperia, where the boys had their first taste of a true tapas bar.  They dove into the patatas bravas and tortilla de patatas.  The live flamenco was hard to beat and brought about slow wine drinking and snacking as the kids slept on our laps.

We spent some much needed time getting haircuts, buying new shoes, and eating pastries.

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We climbed up to Monserrate, the 10,341 foot mountain that looks down onto the city of Bogota.  Once at the top, we had a view of the city, which spanned as far as the smog allowed.

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To keep our children happy, we took the Funicular back down.  I always thought of funicular as some sort of weird intestinal growth, but here, it’s a rail cable car that’s meant to travel up and down mountains.


We walked many kilometers to the centro to Author’s bookstore, a two story english bookstore.  Here, we bought one of two copies of Lonely Planet’s Ecuador book.  Somehow, we overlooked this one before we left.  We were surprisingly happy to have found it but nearly fell over at the $45.00 gringo price tag.


Palacio de Narino

Palacio de Narino

Like the other few places in Colombia that we assumed wouldn’t be our favorite, Bogota pulled us into it’s urban charm.  Despite its’ poor air quality, Colombia’s capital left us looking forward  to the idea of returning some day.


Suesca by: Anik



We left Villa de Leyva and took a one hour detour to take advantage of the region’s purest water.  The unattended spring, which pours out of a non assuming pipe,  sits a few kilometers out of the pueblo of Arcabuco.  We filled our Van’s twelve gallon tank, our nalgene bottles, our empty gallon bottles, measuring cup, small cups,  and anything other empty container we could find.  Clean water = liquid gold.



We stopped in Tunja to get the materials for the upper bed’s gate, which we found at a very simple Ferreteria.  They didn’t have wood, so the muchacho from the pet store next door got on the phone with his uncle, who, of course,  showed up 10 minutes later with exactly what we needed.  We borrowed the neighbor’s drill and $3.50 later, along with the collaborative effort a a few guys, we drove away assured that falling head first is now a thing of the past.



We pulled into the town of Suesca in mid afternoon and we felt refreshed with the simple, tourist free streets.  Suesca’s only outsiders are those pulled in by the amazing rock climbing it offers, which in the middle of the week, during low season, meant pretty much just us.


Once again, we made a new friend, Alejandro from the one man climbing outfit,  Muisca Audoor.  We made a rock climbing date for early the next morning.





We spend the night in a locked parking lot next to the climbing trail, with access to a bathroom and next door to an italian restaurant where we enjoyed the best glass of wine we’ve had in Colombia.


The man who gave us permission to camp in his lot, insisted on giving us a bag of wood to have a fire.  Once again, the kids spent a few hours “smoking” twigs that looked like hobbit pipes.  We spent the night surrounded by 5 dogs who took the job of guarding our van very seriously.  The pepperoni sticks we shared with them only amplified their loyalty.


Colombia’s street dogs are numerous, gentle and seem to enjoy a freedom without the reproach of homelessness.  They’re treated generally well, not only tolerated but respected all around.    The kids and I have fantasies of adopting a few of them, but it’s a well known fact that Darin would disown us.  For now, we choose Darin.

Early this morning, Alejandro led us down the train track to the climbing area. Suesca’s rock walls could keep one happy for a lifetime.


The kids were amazing and admirable in their courage.  After 2 scary descents, Marco opted for being our photographer.

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He seems to have an eye for it.  Despite the fact that he took over 900 pictures, some of them really captured the moment.

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The climbs became more challenging as we went and on our last climb, I realized that the exhilaration of rock climbing is similar to that of surfing.  Darin’s already mentally preparing to make more room in the garage for the gear we’re gonna need…or maybe I’m just kidding myself.





Villa de Leyva by: Anik


We’ve spent the past few days mostly relaxing and getting some essentials like laundry done.  The quiet and comfortable hostel that we’ve been camping at allows us to use all the amenities while still sleeping in our van, which is very economical.

I have to say that this trip so far has taught me a thing or two about hostels and how they get pigeonholed as dirty, bed bug ridden, stinky backpacker capsules.  Our experience thus far has given us a glimpse of the hostel as a clean, inexpensive, laid back place with communal areas to share information with other travelers.  The kids love them because most have games, tv rooms, and large outdoor areas for playing.

Over the past few days, we’ve enjoyed some simplicities that back home we take for granted.  Darin gave Simon a haircut this morning, now Simon looks even more like Darin as a kid.  We’ve done a lot of cooking with the use of the full sized refrigerator and cooking appliances available to us.  At the hostel in San Gil, I watched a guy make the most amazing looking thai coconut lemongrass chicken soup, I couldn’t get it off my mind.  I replicated it two nights ago and we all had several helpings.

Last night, we made a chorizo, mushroom, spinach lasagna in this wood burning that we’re envious of (I think Darin should build me one).


Chorizo, spinach, mushroom lasagna

We took a bus 45 minutes out of town to the colorful artisan town of Raquira.  The boys each got a traditional poncho, which are surprisingly versatile.



Marco face timed his class, which for him, took a lot of courage.  He said all of about 9 words, six of which included “hi”.  I’m thankful for his teacher, who seems to understand him quite well.  It was precious.


We’ve enjoyed some excellent restaurant food in Villa de Leyva as well.  Last night we had some Mexican food that could go up against anything in the Yucatan peninsula.  My mind has  swapped the thai soup obsession with the salsa verde that came over my enchiladas.  Darin had five small pork tacos that were indescribable and probably impossible to replicate.

For lunch today, we went to Arte Gourmet for burgers, which are a novelty here.  I had the most amazing veggie burger, which was covered in oyster sauce sautéed bean sprouts, fresh tomatoes and lettuce.  The bread was probably made that morning and now, I can’t get it off my mind either.  Simon said his chicken burger was “no offense daddy, the best burger I’ve had in my life”.


Today, we traveled about 6 km out of town to “El Fosil”.  It was definitely a trip for the kids but Darin and I found ourselves with curiosities peaked.  A very understated entrance fee and step through a rotating gate led us to an intact, 7 meter water dinosaur, a Kronosaur that dates back 120 million years when this valley was under water.  Marco kept saying that it was a fake painted decoy…


On the way back into town, we hitched a ride on a microbus, which is a typical way to secure a ride here in colombia.

We’ve been here for 5 days and we haven’t used our van at all.  This town is lovely to walk through, we’ve done miles of walking everyday.  Darin and I still maintain that our morning runs allow us a glimpse of new towns and cities like no other.  It gives us time alone, with the newness of the day, while the roosters are still giving a shout out to the rising sun.



At 3:30 this morning, we were shockingly awakened by the loud thump of Marco falling out of bed head first.  We found ourselves doing a full neurological assessment to make sure we could move him, it was another night spent with hearts racing.  Thankfully, with the help of a chiropractic adjustment, he’s completely fine this morning.  That kid is one tough cookie.

Once Darin gathers what he needs to build an upper bed gate, we’ll be leaving Villa de Leyva today, with some rock climbing, hot spring dipping, and city bustling ahead of us.  We’re learning to take things as they come and go with the flow more than we ever have.  We thought that by now, we’d be in Ecuador but Colombia has so much to offer.  We’ll eventually make it across the border.

El Cocuy: A rugged spanking! By: Anik

Warning: some explicit content


We left San Gil on saturday, after Darin and the boys had a blast white river rafting the Rio Fonce.  We weren’t sure how long the trip to El Cocuy would take,  but our last glimpse of WiFi for what would be a week, told us that our window of opportunity for nice weather was limited to monday and tuesday (error #1).

A few hours into the drive, we were (legitimately) pulled over by the policia for speeding.  After verifying our papers and asking us a dozen questions about where we came from, where we were going, how long we were planning on being in Colombia, they wanted details about our experience so far in Colombia…the police officer shook Darin’s hand and advised us to “control our speed”.

We pulled into the pueblito of Tuta at around 6:30pm with the intention of finding a camp and cooking dinner.  As we rolled in on the town’s one and only main road, we found ourselves part of the saturday night festivities.  Poncho wearing men with cowboy hats and horses were in the streets drinking beer, all while big slaps of beef were being smoked next to severed cow heads for sale.



We felt like we’d arrived in an alien ship and needed to at least announce that we came in peace.  We parked and wandered down the main road, looking for dinner and a recommendation on where to make our camp.

Within 5 minutes, we were sitting at a small plastic table for 4 on the sidewalk in front a a family’s house.  We were served a whole cold chicken, delicious boiled potatoes, and yucca, all of which we ate with our fingers.


We were quickly surrounded by drunken men who kept hugging Darin and calling him “Compadre”.  They sang us songs and told us jokes which we couldn’t understand.  Darin gave his new compadre his baseball hat as a “regalo”.


Apparently, with Colombia’s recent turmoiled past, camping has become a novelty.  Even when we explain to people that our van is meant for camping and that all we need is a flat spot, somewhere quiet and ideally secluded, it’s like we’re asking to sleep on water.  Most of the time, we’re sent to a hotel or the town plaza, which is usually in front of the church, next to the police station,  under bright lights, with no seclusion whatsoever.

In Tuta, however, when I said secluded, they understood.  The friendly woman whose table we sat at, sent her two boys ages 14 and 15 in our van with us so that they could show us the ideal place.  We drove straight up for 15 minutes on a gravel road and found ourselves at the highest point around.  The boys stayed with us for a while, they caught bugs that become dormant at night, they watched part of a movie with Simon and Marco on the laptop, and the oldest boy gave me his beaded red, blue and yellow “Colombia” bracelet.  Eventually,  someone showed up on a motorcycle to pick them up.  We had a great night and spent the morning doing yoga and eating breakfast with a panoramic view of the valley below.


On our way out of Tuta the following morning, we stopped in to thank our hosts and say goodbye.  A few hours into the windy drive, we found ourselves driving through a few towns which, not long ago were part of the FARC red zone.  As always, we got many looks, but this time, the only plan was to pass through without stopping.


We drove over a total of 5 passes, each road, more washed out than the one before.


We got to the town of El Cocuy at 7:30pm, at 2700 meters,  in the pouring rain, tired and hungry.  We found a cozy room, had a typical dinner of rice, potatoes, and chicken and went to bed.  We woke up refreshed on monday morning to an incredible view of the surrounding mountains.


I mentioned that according to our online research 3 days prior, the weather would only hold up for us on monday and tuesday.  From this point forward, many mistakes were made, which became dangerous and could have been disastrous.  I share this turn of events to clear my mind and to share “what not to do”…

After our breakfast of potato soup and eggs, we headed to the Parque Nacional El Cocuy office to pay the entry fee and to register our route.  On the way out, they require you to un-register, otherwise they send a search and rescue team.  Being efficient and goal oriented as always, we chose a strenuous route which would take us to the Laguna Grande de la Sierra, a high lake.  The park official told us that this 4 km hike would take 4 to 5 hours one way.  This seemed feasible, it sounded like something we’d done over 100 times, plus we’d be camping at the lake and descending back the next day.  The park official couldn’t tell us anything about the forecast and the only map available had no detail and no topographical information.

We drove up for an hour on a less than graveled road with ruts and pot holes that made our average speed less than 10 mph.  By the time we got up to the trail head (which was actually a farmer’s hacienda), we were at 3600 meters.  It was 11:30am and we felt pressed for time.  We packed our food and camping gear in our backpacks and started straight up (error #2).



The first part of the hike was lovely and gradual through a farmer’s land, surrounded by cows and sheep.


At 0.7 km, we started hiking straight up through trees until we reached a beautiful, large meadow of Frailejon, at 4000 meters.

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We welcomed the leveled .5 km through this meadow and started straight up once again, this time through nothing but rock.  We climbed and climbed with no change in scenery.

At around 3:30pm, Simon started complaining of a headache.  We took a third hydration and food break and continued on (error #3).  By 4:30pm, we were exhausted and still far from our target.  There was nothing but rock straight up and very few water sources.  Behind us, the sky was almost black and roaring with thunder and lightning.  The old man whose house we had parked at, had mentioned that that there was some sort of large rock shelter on the way to the high lakes.  He must have known the forecast.  Our goal became to find this rock shelter.

At some point about 45 minutes before we found our camp, Simon continued to complain of a severe headache and dizziness.  We stopped at a small stream to have some electrolyte tablets in a water filled nalgene bottle. Darin’s eyes were blood shot, he was pale, and looking exhausted.  We felt a bit crazy and in our delusion, we laughed at our current situation, which we would find out wasn’t funny at all.  With Simon and I crying with fatigue, Marco, strong as a bull, led the way to the Cueva de los hombres.  As soon as we saw it, we knew this was the cave the man had talked about.  We climbed up to it, feeling saved for the night…not quite.  Our elevation was approximately 4400 meters.

Somehow, we felt like once we stopped and had some hot soup and tea, we’d feel fine and get a great night’s sleep before finishing out hike the following day (error #4).  The thunder continued, and it began to rain.  As Darin filtered water, Simon was feeling and looking awful.  I put all the clothes we had on the kids, including their down booties, inflated their mats and stuffed them into their sleeping bags.  It was 5:45pm and they were out.  Darin and I set up camp and we proceeded to make the soup, still thinking somehow that this would solve everything.

Cueva de los hombres

Cueva de los hombres

Darin had borrowed our friend Mick’s multi fuel camp stove, which, unlike ours,  can burn fuel at high elevations.  Having not found white gas, Darin had filled the canister with dirty unleaded gas.  The orifice for the burner kept getting clogged, Darin changed it for a larger one.  To ensure the continuation of the flame, Darin apparently over pressurized the tank to try to clear the jet.  The stove and tank caught fire and Darin managed to throw it 15 feet away as we ducked and screamed at the kids to get behind a rock for fear that it would explode.  It never did explode, but continued to burn for a few minutes as I stood there shaking.

Luckily, before we burned up all of our fuel, Darin had managed to boil a pot of water.  I threw in our soup and let it sit until it became edible.  We got the kids out of the tent so they could eat, hydrate and feel better.    Within having a few bites of soup, they were both vomiting.  That’s when it hit us…What the f*#@ had we done?!?

We did manage to get the kids to eat and drink a bit but all they really wanted to do was sleep.  By 7:30pm we were all in the tent, the kids sleeping and Darin and I trying to focus through the headache, nausea and shortness of breath.  I felt panicked and wanted to descend immediately regardless of the dark and fatigue.  Darin convinced me that it would be very dangerous to descend but that if things became very urgent, we’d leave all our gear in the cave and descend with headlamps.  Sure enough, within an hour we were heavily clouded in and couldn’t see a foot ahead of us.  We spent the night waking the kids up every half hour to hydrate them, check their vitals and to make sure they were coherent.

At sunrise, Darin packed our stuff as the kids and I sat watching, dizzy, sick, and with bluish lips.  The descent took about 3.5 hours.  The dizziness got better fairly quickly but the headache and nausea took several hours to go away once we were back in the town of El Cocuy.  We ate and slept our way through the afternoon and night. On the following day, feeling defeated, we anxiously headed out of El Cocuy.


About one minute out of town, Darin stopped the van and said “I think we need to stay here a few more days and we need to do another hike”.  The kids and I sat there and stared at him open mouthed.  He proceeded to explain that if we didn’t do it, we’d forever feel disgusted with our El Cocuy experience.  Having spent the entire previous night reliving our experience in the cave, I knew exactly what he meant and I agreed.  We promised the kids that this time, we’d have a beautiful experience.  Being incredible boys, they agreed, with the condition that we’d watch a movie together that night…the deal was sealed.

We went to the town market and gathered all the necessary ingredients to make a chicken rice soup from scratch.  We headed back up the difficult road to a different park entrance, where we were told we could find an easy 8km round trip hike to the Lagunillas, a group of three lakes.  We drove down a horrific road for about a kilometer and ended up in spot that was completely deserted, except for the local sheep and horses.


Our 11,500 ft high camp was so remote that we felt like we were in the backcountry but camping in our van.  We spent the entire day reading, playing with the horses, gathering water form a nearby spring, and cooking our soup.  We watched the movie Rango and had many servings of our amazing soup.  We slept like babies…well, actually, I once again relived every moment in the cave.



camp robber

camp robber



The following morning, Luis Alejandro Herrera, a local gaucho arrived, as scheduled, arrived with 2 horses for the boys.  He enjoyed a bowl of granola and a coffee with us in silence, as we marveled at the day before us.  We were acclimated to this elevation and we felt great.



Luis Alejandro and I hiked the 8 km while the boys enjoyed the cozy ride on horses.  The scenery was magnificent, the weather was beautiful, and the 12,600 foot elevation felt perfectly fine.


Darin took a different route and climbed to 16,000 feet to the El Pulpito glacier, which helped get the ants out of his pants.


El Pulpito del Diablo

El Pulpito del Diablo

We met back at the van in the early afternoon, where Simon and I climbed down to the beautiful river below us to fly fish.


With no fish to eat for dinner, and the road back up on Darin’s mind (he had spent the previous night up, with sweaty palms, fearing the road back up), we left camp and started the crazy climb up the road.  For fear of falling off a cliff, the kids and I got out of the van and watched it gyrate and slide backwards 5 times on a switchback on it’s way up the road.  When we made it to the top of the hill, Darin got out of the van, was very red in the face and had a look of pure exhilaration and relief.


We headed back down to the town of El Cocuy, which by now was very much growing on us.  The town of El Cocuy brings about “what if we moved here and made cheese for a living” kinds of conversations.


We spent a third night in the hostel that we came to equate with warm showers (rare in Colombia) and comfort.  We had our daily granola with fruit breakfast in the van and shared our coffee with a police officer who seemed to cherish every sip.

a plug for REI?

a plug for REI?

We went to the weekly friday market and bought the kids “fresh” cotton candy.  It was as though we’d taken them to Disney Land.  We left El Cocuy feeling fulfilled and much better than we did on our first attempt at a departure.

friday market in El Cocuy

friday market in El Cocuy

Having had time to digest our experience, we’ve come to the realization that everything came down to the notion of a time constraint. We’d driven nearly 3 days to get here darn it! We’re so use to being goal oriented, to getting the job done, to being in “go” mode.  We’re so wrapped up in the idea of a plan and a schedule. We should have spent an extra day in the town of El Cocuy, a full day and night at the trail head, and then we should have turned around immediately at the first sign of Simon’s symptoms.

This was a learning experience which has rendered us embarrassed, humbled, and grateful.

On the way toward Villa de Leyva, we stopped for lunch and were unknowingly fed tripe soup thinking it was chicken.  We still feel a bit queasy thinking about it.  We spent yet another night at the hill top in Tuta, where I made burritos and the kids amused themselves by burning long blades of grass, which they pretended were hobbit pipes.


We’ve made it to Villa de Leyva, and it’s a bit of a warped dimension, coming from the poncho wearing, horse straddling, formal speaking town of El Cocuy.  We’ve already eaten chicken wings, tofu, and Arugula pizza.  It’s a welcomed pampering for us all and we’re going to revel in it for a few days.