This is a back-dated post. I originally wrote several days ago while we were in Popayan and added to it for several days since I didn’t have internet. I’m in Otavalo, Ecuador right now, and a recent turn of events has prevented me from uploading it and writing a new post covering the last four or five days.
A lot has happened in the past few days. It’s harder to keep up in South America, everything’s so different and interesting. In the United States, it was hard to come up with anything interesting at all to say about Southeastern Colorado and rural Idaho. Even my posts in Canada were mostly Tim Horton’s jokes.
We spent Christmas in Santa Rosa de Osos, behind a 24-hour travel stop/cafeteria/quesodero. We left the morning of the 26th and headed south towards Medellin. We had wanted to stop and walk around Medellin, but the traffic was too chaotic, and the only parking lot we found was quite a distance from where we thought the city center was. A lot of businesses employed armed security guards to patrol their property with slackly-held pistol-grip shotguns. With safety and logistics in mind, we decided to move on, albeit disappointedly, without seeing the city.
We drove further south through the spectacular Colombian countryside, on narrow shoulderless roads carved into mountains thousands of feet from the valley floor. The scenery in the United States pales in comparison to Colombia. It’s indescribable. The mountains are terraced here, so cows can graze on them (I think? It seems like an incredible amount of work to raise a cow), perched on a 40%+ grade. It seems like they would fall more since cows aren’t known for their agility.
We found a hotel in La Pintada with a pool to stay at, about seventy kilometers outside of Medellin. We spent two nights there because of the pool. The first night we drove into the town of La Pintada, two kilometers away at the bottom of the mountain. We parked, and walked around for a while. We needed to buy a few things, namely bags of water (or boulsas de agua, an ingenious and yet incredibly unwieldy way to sell it). When we walked back to our car we were greeted by a couple of people who gestured for us to come over to their restaurant. Our Spanish isn’t very good, especially the ‘listening’ part, so there’s a lot of guesswork. They gave us bottles of juice and suddenly we were surrounded by incredibly nice and inquisitive people. We talked to them for about an hour before we headed back to our campsite. Several of the people were in a band, and they gave a copy of their CD which is great, downtempo, Colombian music.
The next day, my brother, dad, and I drove into town to buy groceries, look for an ATM and email a photo to our insurance company. We found the ATM, then began to look for Wifi. There were several internet cafes in town, ranging from dust caked, sun bleached Gateways sitting on a dirt floor to shiny new 32” LCD monitors with webcams and headsets. But everywhere seemed to run their computers on Ethernet cables. It looked like nearly every storefront or house in the town had a Wifi router from the scanner on my phone, but every single one was locked—a feat that the people of Louisiana or Florida still can’t seem to achieve. We found a restaurant that had free wifi, and ordered three pandequesos; a bread that theoretically has cheese in it, hence the ‘queso’, however every pandequeso I have seen has been all pan and no queso. The restaurant was an open air café, and surprisingly upscale for the area. They did all of their cooking on a charcoal stove, and the whole kitchen was visible from the seating area. They have no idea how incredibly hip they are—a restaurant serving traditional, locally grown, Colombian cuisine cooked over a biomass stove… We finished using the Wifi and went to pick up some produce before heading back to our camp site for the night.
The next day we got up and stopped in town to attempt to get the address of the family we talked to the first night in La Pintada so we could send them postcards. It was then that we realized that Colombia might not have a national postal service. We talked to them for twenty some minutes trying to convey the concept of postal mail, and ended up with two pages of contact information (no physical address still). I wrote down the name plate on their store, their names, and the road; I think with that I can deduce how to get mail to them if something like that does exist in Colombia.
We drove south towards Cali out of La Pintada. Another 200km of winding mountain roads through rural Colombia. It’s stunningly beautiful, but after a week and a half of it, you become a little jaded. The sun is hot here, nothing like the sun in the US, and especially not like the sun in Alaska. In Alaska, the sun contains barely any heat, like holding your hand inside the lampshade of a 70w bulb. Here it’s like holding your hand near a gas stove. Our van overheats going up the huge hills, and we have to turn the heater on in the already hot climate. I think I’ve acquired some minor heat resistance from the 110F car. That day we figured out that we could take the one window off to allow some airflow, which helped tremendously. The temperature decreases substantially as you go up—from the mid 90s at sea level to the mid 70s at 6000 feet. The difference might be from Houston to Denver, but here you can traverse it in thirty kilometers.
We spent the night that night near Tulau, forty kilometers outside of Cali. We pulled into a gas station and, as always, were the center of attention. After about forty minutes of talking to people about our trailer and Alaska, we were able to retreat inside. The people were incredibly nice yet again, and I think we made a new facebook friend or two. The place we were stopped at was like one of those exits on the interstate outside of a major city where all of the seedy hotels congregate, except in Colombia. Several of them had their hourly rates on their sign. We were almost out of drinking water, but all we could find in the village was 600ml bags of water, and we ended up paying ~7000COP a gallon for it. We saw a bus hit a taxi in front of our gas station—about all the excitement for the night. Nothing appeared to have happened to the taxi, but the Mercedes bus probably had $1000 in frontend cosmetic damage. Everyone on the minibus got off right away and walked to the adjacent restaurant where manager looked excited that he’d be able to sell the three empanadas that had been sitting under a fluorescent light bulb since 4:00pm.
This morning we got up early before the heat and left at about 7:00am. We stopped at a truck stop with Wifi to check a few things before proceeding on past Cali to Popayan. We made good time across the flat plain, and had climbed the three thousand feet to Popayan by 3:00pm. We looked for a parking lot for the night, but couldn’t find one so we drove to the next town. We also needed an ATM, but after twenty minutes in the town we figured out that the only ATM was out of service for the day, forcing us to go back to Popayan. We found a parking lot on the way back and dropped off our trailer before we drove into the “White City”. Popayan’s historic town center consists of hundreds of whitewashed Colonial buildings densely packed into a valley. Popayan also happens to look very American on the main roads, strangely so. There were more than a few times when I like I had been transported to some sort Spanish-speaking United States. One giveaway, though, is that the United States seems to be the pinnacle of cool in this Southern Colombian city. In the mall we went to, nearly all the stores were tapping into this market. One was called “JOSH: define yourself”, another was all about the wonders of New York, and had giant pictures of New York symbolism “Subway Wall Street Empire State Building Times Square Brooklyn” proclaimed a giant green sign also filled with pictures of buses, taxis and other urban miscellanea. I am far from a mall person, I can’t even ironically go to malls in the US, they just grate on me, but this Colombian mall was pretty awesome. Most of the stores actually had cool stuff, from a vintage South American leather store with a window full of Che Guevara-Motorcycle Diaries bags and jackets to a Colombian Hot Topic (titled “B KUL”) and a Latin American watch designer.
At the mall, I hunted down the Movistar store to try to buy an unlocked broadband router. The clerk spoke some English, I spoke some Spanish, and together we figured out that I would have to buy it myself in Ecuador and that “unlocked” doesn’t seem to translate. I looked for a Claro store, but only found a kiosk in the upscale Supermercado that anchored one side of the mall. From what I got from them, their modems are unlocked, but they only sell modems and not routers. It amazes me how pervasive the incongruency seems to be in cellular providers down here. Claro is a giant company, but it appears that their phones don’t work from country to country, even though they exist in seemingly every nation from Mexico down. Movistar, I still can’t figure what they are. I did some research in the mall last night on my phone, and I think that Movistar and Clara moved in recently and bought old telecommunications networks in different countries, making them more like a conglomerate than a single operator. While this may explain why some phones wouldn’t work internationally, it doesn’t explain why a Claro SIM card in my iPhone would work in Colombia but not Ecuador. I’m hoping that the Claro dealer in Ecuador might have an English speaking clerk to help me buy a data plan for my phone, as unlikely as that sounds.
We stayed late at the mall, we spent an hour or so sitting in some sort of indoor park checking things on our phones while my dad, Sylvia and Annebelle spent time at an amped-up Chuck E Cheese. A couple of people eagerly tried their English on me; it must be how a European person would feel in the US.
We left the mall at about 8:00 and stopped to buy water but were only able to find 600ml bags for 700COP each. We bought twelve (because I couldn’t remember how to say fourteen), and drove back to the parking lot where we were staying. The parking lot wasn’t in the best area of Popayan, sort of like the end of Peger Road in Fairbanks. At about 9:00pm, and bunch of people started fighting and chanting across the street—it sounded like a two-by-four brawl. That was when I went back into the trailer. Sometime around 11:00pm, a giant trash pile was set on fire at the bus barn next store and a plume of acrid smoke settled over our trailer.
We left the next morning to head to Pasto, but the road was slow going. We made it within 100km of Pasto, but the road climbs 7000 feet in the next sixty miles. We camped at 4:00pm at Texaco station because this is one of the most dangerous stretches of road, and we didn’t want to be caught out after dark. I don’t know the name of the town where we’re at, but it’s in the center of the weird part of Colombia. It’s in some sort of desert complete with giant cacti. It actually isn’t dissimilar in appearance to the Sonoran Desert, but it’s a little more verdant. We’re in some sort of plain at an elevation of 1700 feet. People stand in the road with bamboo poles so you can’t drive past in your car until you give them change. It was kind of amusing at first, but after six roadblocks in the same village… You don’t have to pay them, but it really helps expedite the process. Several of the groups of people at the roadblocks were in costumes, including a guy in a wig pretending to be a pregnant woman. There’s also faded billboards with a Junta Hotline on them—completely serious here, you call the toll free number if you have Junta problems. It’s a very desolate place.
Tomorrow we’re planning on making it to Ipales, the Colombia-Ecuador border town about 150km and 7000 feet away. We need to find wifi somewhere, so we might be in an internet café for a few hours in Pasto. These major Colombian cities are extraordinarily difficult to navigate, so it’s hard to tell where we’ll end up. Internet cafes are really hit or miss too, most seem to have dusty emachines in a particle board booth, and none that I have seen have wifi.
I’ve been updating this nightly for the past several days, so the continuity might seem jarring. It seemed like a better idea than publishing three separate posts at once.