Will the real Juan Valdez please stand up?

I’m really not trying to be all evasive and secretive by not writing anything about what I’ve been doing since…October? I’ve just been BUSY. School, rugby, prepping for visitors, socializing and weekend adventures have been sucking my time and brain cells – mostly in a good way.

For the second half of our October break, Natalie and I (Professional Vacationers Anonymous, in case you forgot) took about 20 hours’ worth of buses to get from San Gil (northeast of Bogotá) to Salento, in the coffee region (southwest of Bogotá.) Salento is a sleepy little vacation town with hostels, restaurants, craft vendors and not much else. Luckily, we didn’t need much else. A handful of WorldTeachers converged there by chance so we were able to catch up and lay our eyes on the finish line.

Salento’s main attraction is that it’s located a few kilometers away from the Valle de Corcora, one of the top five most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The valley consists of bright green hills crawling up to mountains and heavily strewn with the Colombian national tree: the wax palm. Wax palms are literal Truffula trees, impossibly tall and thin with a leafy tuft at the top.

We hiked through the back of the valley, up to a hummingbird headquarters nature reserve, then sweated and strained our way up the mountain and descended through the wax palm mist. It’s really unbelievable how many extraordinary landscapes this country has within its borders.

Being exceptionally good friends, we willingly sacrificed another 3-day weekend to return to Salento with Kate, whose flight problems didn’t let her do the valley hike the first round.

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“Have you ever met a cloud?”

“Have I met who?”

There I was, a few thousand feet in the air casually chatting with Edward and gaping in disbelief at Chicamocha canyon below me. Seeing as the verb conocer means “meet” and “know,” I thought I was in for a science lesson about the different kinds of clouds we could see from under the parachute. Then, a cold gray mist enshrouded us, and we met a cloud.

Meet a cloud: another one of those things that I would check off my bucket list, if I had ever thought to put it on my bucket list in the first place.

Darn those teachers. Not only do they get out of work at 3:00 every day, it’s like they’re always on vacation (second most national bank holidays, holla at me.)

Colombians will talk your ear off about how beautiful and diverse their country is. There are mountains, deserts, lakes, beaches, rivers, forests, plains, valleys and coffee-themed amusement parks. I can’t even think of a geological feature that you can’t find here, and the craziest thing is – it’s all beautiful. I’ve been to several different departments in the country, and I haven’t seen an ugly one so far.

Santander was no exception. Natalie and I bused about seven hours northeast of the capital to a town called San Gil located in this hilly, hot region of banana trees, Spanish moss and vultures. San Gil is known for its extreme sports, and, being such extreme people, we had no choice but to throw ourselves off some cliffs attached to parachutes and pilots. Chicamocha canyon is really, really amazing but I found it hard to comprehend that I was actually suspended over it thanks to some nylon, plastic and aluminum.

We kept our feet on the ground for the rest of our days in Santander, busing to a small colonial town named Barichara the next day and hiking a few miles to Guane, another, smaller colonial town. Colombia’s best sandwiches at Gringo Mike’s, fried fat-bottom ants, exceptional lulo juice, a few hours of tejo (best. sport. ever.) and two pairs of handcrafted sandals later, we tore ourselves away from San Gil’s weather perfection for the second half of our trip.

If our current professional tracks don’t work out, we should probably just be professional vacationers because we are damn good at it.

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Chapter 6: The Wolfpack on a Boat

We spent two glorious days in the tiny town of Guatapé where we encountered much friendlier people and cleaner bodies of water than Medellín (Río Medellin=WOOF.) Guatapé is a massive, partially man-made lake with dozens of islands. We arrived on a festivo Monday and the malecón or lakefront walkway was crawling with mainly Colombian tourists. There were vendors every few feet successfully tempting us with grilled papas criollas (the most delicious baby potatos on earth) and chorizos, empanadas and arepas, michelada beers, ice cream, obleas and the standard spread of souvenirs (with all these italics I feel like I should probably write a blog about Colombian food.)

The shore was crowded various watercraft for rent, and it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon so we shelled out about 6 USD apiece for a 1.5 hour lake cruise. The four of us didn’t chat much while on board because I think we were all too busy thinking the same exact thing: there is no where on Earth I would rather be right now. And let’s steal that beagle.

We stayed in a beautiful lakeside hostel that Kate’s mom recommended to us after she saw it on House Hunters International. (um, Brig’s mom, where were you on that one?) One morning was dedicated to casually climbing 739 stairs to the top of a strange geological structure called El Peñol, known as The Rock. The ascent was exhausting yet quad-burningly refreshing (if no comparison to Cotopaxi) and well-worth the views at the top.

 

If only there were a Guatapé closer to Bogotá.

Chapter 5: The Wolfpack Gets Insulted by Paisas

Medellín is the second-largest city in Colombia, former drug cartel hub and home to the late Pablo Escobar (formerly the second most-dangerous city in the world), and a popular location for tourists and expats. Colombians, foreigners, visitors and residents alike called it paradise, their favorite place in the country and world, a Utopian city of absolute loveliness.

Can I confess something rather blasphemous?

I wasn’t totally into Medellín.

The weather is great – sunny and hitting 80 during the day. The above-ground metro transportation is incredible, one of the cleanest, smoothest and most efficient I’ve ever seen. The tourist sites we visited were pretty and well kempt, the city has beautiful views and good restaurants. It seems like a lovely place to live and work….but I didn’t love it.

We heard the people were the friendliest in Colombia, outgoing and helpful, but in our few days there, a lot of the Paisas (Medellín residents) we encountered were kind of rude. Maybe because we were obviously tourists? It seemed like everyone was annoyed by our lack of perfect Spanish/perfect understanding of the singsong Paisa accent and talked down to us. Also, catcalls (from men) and staring (from EVERYONE) were far more overt.

We spent our short time in Paisa country exploring parks and catching up with visiting and resident WorldTeachers. We gained Kate’s boyfriend, Ben, visiting from the U.S. and lost Vanessa back to the states as her placement on the coast fell through.

Medellin. Would I go back? Sure. Would I live there? Probably. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Would I jump on the bandwagon of every Colombian and tourist ever who OMG LOVES MEDELLÍN WANTS TO MOVE THERE THIS VERY INSTANT BOGOTÁ IS THE WORST?

Nope.

I’ll let the majority have their stance and maintain my Bogotá loyalty guilt-free.

Pictures are from Botero Park in Medellin.

Chapter 4: The Wolfpack Climbs an Active Volcano, and Says Goodbye

Just a few of Cotopaxi’s superlatives:

  • Most Photogenic Volcano From A Distance
  • Best Place to Eat Soup at a High Altitude
  • Third-Tallest Volcano in Ecuador
  • Source of the Most Accurate Indigenous Names
  • Possibly the Highest Active Volcano in the World (but I’m writing this in an internet-less state and won’t remember to Google the real fact)
  • Most Likely to Convince Kate Bailey That She, In Fact, LOVES Climbing Volcanoes
  • Brighid Carey’s Favorite Volcano

    Taken on a field trip in 2009…no idea where but HOW GOOD DOES THAT VOLCANO LOOK???

Another two-hour day trip from Quito brought us to the Cotopaxi National Park to the southeast. We hired a guide to drive us through the valley and up to the parking lot below the refuge. Hardcore hikers bring ice axes and other scary things to climb all the way to the summit. We were happy with the excruciating one-hour ascent to the Refugio at about 5,000 meters/16,000 feet. The refuge doesn’t look far away, but every ten steps calls for a break to gasp for oxygen, huddle against the wind and admire the views above and below. It was every bit as painful as the first time I hiked it and the hot chocolate and soup every bit as gratifying at the top.

That night we had to have RHCP food and margaritas again, if only because Bogotá is severely lacking in good Tex-Mex. Our last day in Ecuador I was able to meet up with a friend’s former host dad for coffee. I really loved talking to him and catching up, especially because he asked if I was still in contact with everyone and I could honestly answer YES, that we talk and have visited several times since our Quito days, and we’re still resolved to reunite for Fiestas de Quito. Someday. Some last-minute market purchases and DELICIOUS encebollado fish stew concluded a perfect week back in my beloved little Ecuador.

Chapter 3: The Wolfpack Indulges in the Capital

Day trips from Quito are wonderful, but I wanted to make sure we had time to see the city itself. It’s smaller than Bogotá (about two million people compared to eight) and as I mentioned, the historical center is incredible. We spent a day exploring the various plazas and climbing up my Favorite Church Ever: the Basilica. The pictures speak for themselves, and yes, the ladders spanning towers several hundred feet in the air were as terrifying as ever.

We also ventured up to the Panecillo, the hill where a huge statue of the Virgen Mary with wings is poised over southern Quito. I had never been up there before and the views are spectacular on a clear day. We could see Cotopaxi, the Ilinizas and a few other volcanoes to the south.

Later that night we indulged in some delicious food and martinis at a Vietnamese place I’d never been to then met up with a friend of mine who was in WorldTeach Ecuador while I was studying abroad there – and still lives and works in Quito. After, Natalie and I tried to scope out the crowd at Bungalow 6, a club crawling with gringa-hunters that used to be a great source of entertainment, but apparently Bungalow thinks it’s actually a sophisticated place. Not only was there a long line of people waiting to get in (including girls in heels and dresses – seriously??), they were charging a five dollar cover. Five dollars at Bungalow? For girls? On Ladies’ Night? Not happening, ever.

The Mariscal might be nicknamed “Gringolandia” but I miss its spread of bars and restaurants, drink deals, lack of dress code and simultaneously cozy/dangerous feel at night. Plaza Foch even has a taste of Colombia – a new Juan Valdez coffee franchise.

Chapter 2: The Wolfpack Explores a Cloud Forest

Mindo is a tiny town a few hours northwest of the capital. The geography is extraordinarily different from that a few hours northeast where the highway wraps around Ibarra’s dry, grassy mountains. Mindo is in a cloud forest, a lush, green selva with steep mountains and small rivers in the valleys. The town is dedicated to ecotourism. A few decades ago, Mindo was a community where the population got by with agriculture and forestry. A small group of locals and foreigners were able to turn the economy around to a sustainable model focused on tourism and positively exploiting the surrounding forest. This was my third or fourth trip to Mindo. The town is slightly more developed but my favorite hostel was still there (Casa de Cecilia, it’s basically a summer camp treehouse) and the guides and business owners were as friendly and accommodating as ever.

On our way to Mindo we hit up the Mitad del Mundo//Middle of the World monument outside Quito. It’s allegedly 0’0” latitude. Someone with a military GPS claims that the real middle is a few hundred yards north, but who’s counting?

Despite pouring rain that afternoon, we embarked on a chocolate tour at a hostel/café next to ours where we saw the chocolate-making process from fruit to bar and obviously tried some treats. The next morning was perfect Mindo weather, blue sky and sun, so we did a waterfall hike followed by my favorite activity of all time: ziplining.

Chapter 1: The Wolfpack Goes Shopping

We arrived in Quito on Saturday night, and even though a cute, geographically-challenged little boy stole my window seat on the flight, I was ecstatic the second I saw Quito’s lights. Landing there by night is incredible, because it’s a long north-south city sitting in a valley and the airport is right in the middle. I was anxious until we boarded our hostel shuttle and started covering familiar territory. Quito is still the city I loved in 2009.

Our hostel was on the north end of the Mariscal, basically the gringo-y district full of bars, tour agencies, restaurants and hostels. The location was great and the hostel was more like a bed and breakfast than the backpacker-infested bunkhouses that I so despise.

The first true Vacation Success was dinner. When I was here two years ago, I had this uncanny sense of direction for the Mariscal. It’s not a big area but I could navigate the grid and locate any business without a second’s hesitation. This time, I was counting on my sixth sense instead of practical things like street addresses to find the best Mexican restaurant on Earth – Red Hot Chili Peppers. Apparently these things never leave you, because we found it without a single wrong turn and the frozen blackberry margaritas are every bit as delicious and potent as they used to be.

I promised the girls a massive wool-and-everything market in the form of Otavalo on Sunday. There were no disappointments and I think we made the blanket, poncho, jewelry, sweater, hat, bag, scarf and art vendors very, very happy.

Upon our return to Quito, we had dinner with “my other mom,” Ibis. I’m 4-for-4 with host family placements, but she’s got the gold medal on lockdown for quirkiness and loveliness. She still speaks in all capital letters and is just a genuinely wonderful person. “BREEGHEED! HOW ARE YOU? HOW IS YOUR FAMILY? HOW IS YOUR BROTHER? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING? HOW IS AMELIA? THIS HAPPENED! THAT HAPPENED! WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK TO ECUADOR?” It was a total time warp to be a guest in my “own” house, looking across the street at the window that used to be Amelia’s, watching the same buses chug by on Calle Eloy Alfaro and wanting to fall back into my old routine. After a delicious homecooked meal, Ibis took us for a drive through the Historical Center, somewhere I’ve only been at night on a chiva. Sorry, Bogotá, but Quito’s Centro KICKS ASS. It’s huge, beautiful and clean, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Seeing it lit up and quiet is like a different world.

Going Back.

My upcoming vacation is going to mark a full sort of circle for me: the returns.

I’ve had the utmost luck and fortune the past five years in that I’ve lived abroad in three different locations. I spent a 4-month semester in Spain, just under six months in Ecuador and a few months volunteering in Guatemala. Thanks to working multiple jobs, plane ticket deals and coincidental schedules, I’ve so far been able to return to two of my former homes to visit.

A year after I studied abroad in Granada, a few friends and I went to Dublin for spring break to visit my friend Jess, who was there for the semester. I found good ol’ RyanAir-school-bus-with-wings flights for less than 100 USD back to my beloved little Spanish city, and we went. I remember being ecstatic to show my friends everything I adored about Granada: the Alhambra, Café Futbol, sunsets from the mirador, the “chup,” sunny afternoons in Parque García Lorca, Pöe tapas and beautiful first-person history from every angle. I was a bit outraged to find that prices had gone up and the floor had been mopped at our old bar haunt, Perra Gorda. Three days back in Grana were far from enough but I left happy having shared such an important part of my life with some of my best friends.

Less than a year after leaving (read: tearing myself kicking and screaming away from) Santiago Atitlán, I was at an odd junction with jobs, housing and various situations when I found a window of time and a cheap plane ticket back to the lake. Since the night I said my goodbyes in December 2010, I was resolute to visit again, if only to assure the incredible people I met there that I hadn’t and would not forget them, that my three months were more than meaningful and that I would keep my promise to return. I can’t describe how happy I was to be back. I felt like I was floating. I burst into tears the second I saw Volcán San Pedro from the chicken bus where I was smooshed next to two women in huilpas. I wanted to hug everything. I did hug everyone save for the drunks and tuk-tuk stalkers. The sights and smells and sounds were overwhelmingly familiar and unchanged.

Now, I live conveniently close to my second home abroad: Quito. I started looking at tickets from BOG to UIO before I arrived in Colombia, and bought them before spring break, aligning with my Bogota-based professional travel buddies. My study abroad friends – Samantha, Barb, Shmeels, Katie and Jenny – were such a huge part of my Ecuador experience that I’m not sure what to expect without them. What will Quito be like this time around? How can I possibly remember how to play cuarenta by myself? What if I can’t find Guardian Shawarma or I’ve totally forgotten the map of the Mariscal I once had tattooed to my eyelids? If “Calle 8” and “Llamada de Emergencia” aren’t playing in the background at all times, what will be? What if we get pick-pocketed or sick or roofied and Ecuador doesn’t live up to the five months I’ve been talking it up? I’m pretty sure my friends are expecting a city made of alpacas and BonIce where ají flows like wine and local currency is granadillas. Fortunately, that’s EXACTLY what they’re going to find.

Really though, I can’t want to get back to my old stomping grounds, visit some of the most lovely people in the world, buy two of everything in Otavalo, drink Zhumir, relax and adventure in Mindo, fall flat on my face descending city buses, asphyxiate our way to the refugio of Cotopaxi and see how one of my beloved cities has changed or stayed the same. I’m interested to note the differences between Colombia and Ecuador – they’re more subtle than the similarities, especially after two and a half (!!!) years away.

I’ve been focusing so much on Quito that the second half of our trip in Medellin, Colombia, is going to be a delightful surprise. If they successfully get me out of Ecuador, that is.