Pisco Sour and Ceviche

Peru has so many amazing places to visit that we were at a loss trying to figure out what we could and could not fit in during our short time in the country.  Ok, three and a half weeks is not all that short, but that’s how fantastic (and spread out) Peru is!  We ended up skipping the most Northern parts of Peru for the sake of time, which meant we missed the best beaches, the majority of the jungle, and some Incan ruins that supposedly rival those of Machu Picchu.  What we have seen and experienced, however, has been pretty incredible!

Our first stop was Trujillo, partly because of the nearby ruins and partly because it was on the way to Huaraz.  At our first experience of food in Peru, Bryan was very pleased to finally have true hot sauce – a green salsa with a good kick set out at many of the restaurants – for the first time in South America so far.  We spent our first morning trying to find the local bus, a.k.a. collectivo, to the Huacas de Moche (temples of the Moche people).  We stood at a round-about watching a hilariously chaotic display of local buses and collectivos (vans that pack ‘em in) dodging one another to get to the customers while someone hung out each door yelling out their routes.  We never saw our route symbol so we trekked back to our hotel, where we found out the collectivo we needed passed by right out front.  That was much easier!  I had to smile all the way to the ruins watching Bryan being squeezed between two plump ladies on a bench behind the driver, while I sat as cozy as possible in a real seat.

(Bryan trying to stretch his mouth over something called “King Kong”, which turned out to just be a fancy PB&J.)

At the Huacas de Moche we paid our entrance fee and began exploring the museum before the ruins, as recommended.  A few moments in, Bryan realized we were short changed 50 soles (about $18) and we rushed back to the entrance with little hope.  The two employees counted their cash drawers against the tickets sold and thankfully acknowledged the mistake.  Phew!  In the museum we saw examples of the pottery similar to nothing we had previously seen (sorry, no pics in the museum), and learned that the Moche people were a bit on the violent side with gladiator-type battles and human sacrifices.  They were eventually overruled by the Incas.  The Huaca del Sol (temple of the sun) was the largest adobe pyramid in the Americas before the Spaniards did major irreparable damage in the pursuit of gold.  It is currently being excavated so it was closed to us.  We were able to tour the Huaca de la Luna (temple of the moon).  The most interesting detail about these temples is that the Moche built a new temple on top of the old about every century, filling in spaces with mud bricks and adding another layer, making it larger while preserving the earlier temples and art.  Between the two temples, little remains of what was once the capital city of the Moche.  At the site I was also fascinated by a strange, hairless dog running around.  I later looked it up and found out it is the Peruvian Hairless dog and the breed has been around since pre-Incan times.  Maybe the dog was waiting for its Moche family to come home!

(Exterior wall of Huaca de la Luna – the hole made my Spanish conquistadors.)

The next day we checked out Chan Chan, the largest pre-Colombian city in South America, built by the Chimor people also from adobe bricks and surrounded by massive adobe walls.  This was different from the Huacas de Moche primarily because it consists of the structures in which the people lived, but also many of the design styles differed greatly.  The majority of the Chimors’ diet came from the nearby ocean, but they also became reliant on irrigation farming.  It was hard to believe they could grow enough crops from that sand dessert, but apparently they did.  We were able to see what is believed to be many crop storage rooms throughout the ancient city.  A design symbolizing fish nets make up many of the walls (the holes made for ventilation of the storage rooms) and repetitive symbols for fish, birds, and squirrels can be seen.  A lot of Chan Chan has been reconstructed, which is both nice and somewhat disappointing.  A lot of erosion occurred making it hard to imagine what the structures once looked like, so the reconstruction is helpful in that way, but it also takes away a bit of the ancient feel.

(Symbolism of waves, ocean currents, fish, and ducks.)

We walked from Chan Chan to another temple, Huaca Esmeralda; an interesting walk because it was set back in a neighborhood and we had to stop and ask several people for directions.  Not very much attention is given to this temple, and we weren’t able to learn much about it as a result, but the style seemed similar to both the Moche’s and Chimor’s.

On the way to Huaca Esmeralda, we passed a packed restaurant that seemed very out of place being so far from the city (until we noticed it was next to a cock fighting place).  The food looked amazing so we decided to try Ceviche there for the first time.  People all over Ecuador had been raving about how good Peru’s Ceviche is.  Daaaanng!  Essentially it is raw fish marinated in lime juice with onion, sweet potato, corn, lettuce, avocado, and whatever else that particular restaurant adorns it with.  The “mixto” we had also included shell fish and crab.  Definitely our favorite single dish of South America so far.

(The incredible “ceviche mixto”)

We ended up with less time in Huaraz than we had wanted due to sold out buses, but our two days there were incredible!  We would be happy to go back in the future to spend an entire week or so trekking.  This was the first time we saw the Andes looking like what you expect the Andes to look like – steep, dramatic, snow-covered peaks that make the Colorado Rockies look like child’s play.  Our bus arrived at five in the morning and we went straight to bed at our hostel.  We pleasantly woke up to a big breakfast a few hours later and the owner helped us make plans to do a mountain bike route that had great views of the surrounding peaks and overlooked the town.  With bikes strapped to the roof, a collectivo brought us to the start on a gravel road high above Huaraz.  We continued uphill for another 5.5 miles, thighs burning, surrounded by breathtaking views.  The route down was really fun as we bounced through traditional villages on a rough route, dodging school children, crazy dogs, and hardworking people carrying big loads on their backs.

(From the hotel rooftop – now this is the Andes!)

Our hotel organized a van to take a big group of us to a popular day hike to Lake 69.  It was a very long day starting with a two hour drive followed by the most physically challenging experience of the entire trip for me.  Nine months ago (when I was in good shape and acclimated to high altitude) this wouldn’t have been as difficult, but being at sea level for so long with lack of regular exercise hasn’t been helpful.  Yet, I have absolutely no complaints!  After passing two gorgeous turquoise lakes enclosed by sharp, snow-capped peaks on the drive in, the trailhead began at around 12,630 feet elevation.  For the next four hours we went up, up, and up – through mountain fields, over two passes, and past the hairiest cattle I had ever seen – until we finally reached Lake 69 at 14,435 feet.  I’d say it was breathtaking, but I didn’t have any breath to take by that time!  As we crossed the last field before climbing the second pass, we were faced by enormous cliff faces topped by thick glaciers.  Countless thin cascades from the melting glaciers dropped a very long way to the field below.  Just after making it to the top of the second pass, the most perfect site came into view:  an enormous waterfall dropping from another cliff face straight into the most turquoise water we had ever seen.  As the rest of the lake came into view, so did the continuing wall of marble-patterned rock face topped by glaciers and pristine peaks, with several more wispy-thin waterfalls.  The sky weather stayed clear just long enough for us to take it all in, and then the clouds changed form and dropped down, covering the peaks and hiding the sunlight.  The temperature dropped fast and it began to snow/rain on us just as we finished our lunch.  Needless to say, we hurried back to the van in just two hours – wet, cold, and happy!

(A lake before the trail head.)

(Lake 69 backed by a marble-patterned cliff, waterfalls, glaciers, and sharp peaks (fish-eye view))

After all that, we had just enough time to take showers before our night bus to Lima.  We were really excited for Lima because it is the home of one of my best friends, Vanessa, who I met in grad school and who still lives in Colorado.  Vanessa has an incredible family who welcomed us into their home and took the time to make sure we experienced Lima the right way!  Her parents, Julio and Merida, don’t speak English (although they know quite a few words), which is the biggest reason we took that Spanish class in Quito and had been practicing so much.  We are very far from fluent, but we did ok considering the short amount of time we’ve been studying.  We can understand more than we can speak, and Julio and Merida are wonderfully animated, which made them quite easy to understand.  Vanessa’s brother, Arturo, was also a life saver when he wasn’t working because he speaks fluent English, and Vanessa called a few times to make sure we understood everything.  Julio and Merida met us at the bus station that morning and had the next two and a half days all planned out for us.  At breakfast we met Vanessa’s grandma, aunt, uncle, and Agida, who helps around the house.  It was actually really fun trying to tell them about ourselves and our trip with our broken Spanish and animations!

(An amazing lunch with Julio, Merida, and Arturo)

After breakfast, we went downtown where we watched the changing of the palace guards and then had a really nice lunch where Arturo met up with us.  We got to try another Ceviche which was even better than the first, some drinks made with pisco and passion fruit (yum), and a couple other seafood dishes.  This was a good start to experiencing the “Gastronomical Capital of South America”.  Julio, Merida, Bryan, and I took a city/coast tour on an open-topped bus where we laughed about dodging tree branches and got to watch people paragliding off the edge of a cliff over the beach.  The city sits much higher than the ocean, with a sudden drop down to the beach all along the coast.  It’s still springtime in Peru, and Lima’s weather was a bit chilly while we were there, so after that open-topped bus we headed for hot cocoa and coffee.  Churros with my hot cocoa? Yes please!  The day ended perfectly at a bar rated for the best Pisco Sours in Lima several years in a row, Huaringas.  Pisco Sour is the Peruvian drink.  We have had many with Vanessa in Denver when her parents bring up the pisco and sour mix, but having it with fresh fruit is a whole different experience!  Pisco is a grape brandy; I describe the taste as a few steps past wine.  We had told Julio and Merida that we plan to have children eventually after the trip, and we laughed hysterically as Julio told us about Peruvian witch doctors that people go to see when they want to have children.  In his very animated way, he told us that the men get the juices from a freshly killed guinea pig rubbed all over them by the witch doctor.  Now that sounds fun!  We’re still laughing every time we remember Julio acting it out!  After Arturo showed up, Julio and Merida left us to keep experimenting with all the flavors (Bryan and I always got different ones), and we had a blast with Arturo and his girlfriend, Gianinna.  That didn’t make the next morning so easy, though!

(Paragliders over the coast of Lima)

Julio and Merida had a big day trip planned for us, so we woke up early to catch a four-hour bus ride South to Paracas, where we first had a nice boat tour the Ballestas Islands.  Bryan and I actually had no clue why we were hopping on this little boat and where we were going (these were all new Spanish words to us) and the guide spoke fast Spanish, so we figured it all out as it appeared in front of us.  The first sight was a very large geoglyph, called El Candelabro, in the side of one of the islands.  It looks like a big cactus and is similar to the more famous Nasca Lines (mysterious large-scale, ancient geoglyphs on the desert floor best seen from airplanes) a little farther South.  But the real sight was the wildlife: Humbolt penguins, sea lions, and millions of other birds blanketing the islands.  It was pretty exciting to see penguins in the wild for the first time, and the sea lions looked so goofy!  The two islands were white with guano (we were told they are important for the agriculture industry) and species included blue footed boobies, guanay guano birds, and pelicans.  Of course we couldn’t understand what species we were seeing at the time, but after looking it up, I’m pretty excited that I can say I saw blue footed boobies!  For lunch we got a ride into Paraca National Reservation on the peninsula for a fantastic lunch (two types of ceviche plus grilled fish dishes) at a very peaceful and beautiful location.  Next to the restaurant was a quiet little beach overlooking men fishing with bare hands and fishing line while pelicans and guanay guano birds watched closely.  Merida and Julia tried to convince us to go for a swim.  It wasn’t exactly warm.  In another month it would probably be great, but we had a chilly wind and the water was even colder.  Bryan did it, though!  He made it all the way in and right back out!  Back in Paraca (the town), we strolled along the beach, enjoyed hot drinks and deserts, and taste-tested pisco at a beach-side bar.

(Blue footed boobies.)

The next day we had another amazing lunch, this time at the country club that Julio is a member of, with a great view overlooking the coast.  Each day the lunch kept getting bigger, like they were stretching our stomachs little by little.  Actually, they kept telling Bryan they were going to fatten him up to make him strong for babies!  Ha!  Julio found out that Bryan loves spicy food, and he wanted to see if Bryan could handle the local hot pepper, rocoto, so he had the waiter bring out a sliced, whole pepper.  Needless to say, Julio was impressed that a “gringo” could take it.  From then on, we had fresh rocoto at every meal.  The food was fantastic, and we both loved this side dish of potato and beans mashed together and grilled on the outside.  Once we were full up to our eyes, out came the desserts.  Despite how amazing they were, it was a difficult task.  Julio and Merida had a baby shower to go to, so Bryan and I wandered around for a bit.  We found an interesting mall inside the cliff over the coast.  It was right below the view out the restaurant window and we had no idea.  We spent some time using the internet at Starbucks, and then hopped on another open-topped bus for a night tour of the city and the fountain park.  The fountain park was pretty cool, with several pretty, but regular fountains, a fountain tunnel to walk through, and then a really cool laser/projector/water show like we had never seen before.  The water was sprayed up in a mist and an animated image would be projected into the mist, and it absolutely looked 3-D like a holographic projection from Star Wars.  Really cool!

(A ‘holographic’ ballerina)

The next day we had the largest meal yet, and the most variety of Peruvian foods.  We got to try Papa a la Huancaina (potatoes in a creamy/cheesy/mustardy sauce) – one of Vanessa’s favorite dishes and the one that she brought to our house a few times for Thanksgivings and other get-togethers.  Mmm!  As soon as we finished one round of food, another followed shortly.  We had all different types of meats, vegetables, potatoes, sauces, and then three types of desserts.

(Papa a la Huancaina)

On our last full day in Lima, Julio and Merida took us to the zoo where we got to see animals from all three climate zones of Peru (jungle, Andes, coastal).  We were most impressed by the many birds that we had never seen before, for example, the giant Condor with its wrinkly, naked head and a small, safety-orange bird with a mohawk.  During the drive between the zoo and their house, a 5.8 earthquake shook Lima and we didn’t feel a thing since we were in the car.  I’m bummed we missed out on feeling our first earthquake.  That day we had a delicious homemade lunch and dinner, of which we especially liked a stuffed potato dish (I think ‘papa rellena’).   That day was pretty relaxing and we were able to recover a little from the food coma before leaving the next afternoon for Cusco.

(Bryan’s favorite bird at the zoo)

We are extremely grateful to the De La Puentes for treating us like family, taking great care of us, and making sure we had such a memorable experience in Lima!  Peru had exceeded our expectations so far, and we still had the most popular sites to come: Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and Colca Canyon.

Up in a Cloud of Ash!

We didn’t get to see all of Ecuador, but we are really happy with what we did get to see.  We traveled straight down the center of the small country, right along the beautiful Andes, and the farther South we went, the better the views became.

After having so much fun in Banos, we wanted to have a short stay in Riobamba because it is a good place to gain access to the famous train ride, Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose).  We had received three invites to stay with people in Riobamba through the Couchsurfing website, which was nice because we got to take our pick.  We chose to stay with Robert because he sounded super interesting and had many good recommendations from other “couchsurfers”.

Bella Vista – Beautiful View of Tungurahua volcano

When we arrived it turned out we had a room and big bed to ourselves.  Robert invited us to whip up some lunch with whatever food he had laying around as he told us about his interesting life.  He is Belgian but grew up in Batswana, Africa.  He then lived in Spain for several years before he ended up in Ecuador.  After a late lunch we headed toward the town center.  Robert teaches English to adults at a university and had an evening class, and Bryan and I needed to get to the train station to purchase our Devil’s Nose tickets.  We happened to run into a friend of Robert’s along the way, Javier, and with him was another tourist, Devon.  We split off to check out the town with Javier and Devon and shared our stories.  It turns out Javier is from Ecuador but he has lived in New Jersey since he was young and he just moved back to open a restaurant.  Devon is a forest firefighter in Canada and is spending the next four or five months bicycling through South America (GO DEVON).  We watched a small parade in the town center and discovered some snacks that tasted like the cinnamon & brown sugar pop tarts.  Javier invited us to his restaurant, LuLu’s, where he treated us to some drinks and a very delicious meal of steak, salad, and rice.  It is a beautiful restaurant and some of the best food we had in all of Ecuador.  It was also really nice to be among other English speakers after struggling with Spanish most of the time.

Enjoying LuLu’s with New Friends

Riobamba’s Saturday markets are supposed to be pretty good, so we spent the day with Robert exploring the markets, new foods, and learning history and facts about the town and surrounding volcanos.  Robert has done a lot of research on the area and we learned so much through him.  It was also nice to rely on his Spanish skills to ask questions when we saw something new to us at the markets.  We ate a lot that day! We started by introducing him to the pop tart-tasting rolls, and then tried a sandwich filled with a pickled fruit, followed by some bread dipped in unprocessed cane sugar syrup, a big lunch of meats and potatoes, and several fruits.  Robert even bought a big guanamana fruit so we could try the juice.  That was extra special because he spent at least an hour separating out the seeds before he could blend it.

One of the many Saturday markets in Riobamba

After we hit every single market in town (there were a lot), Robert was bringing us to a high point where we could have a view of all the surrounding mountains and volcanos.  Just as we were walking in that direction we looked up and noticed a big ash cloud building above the Tungurahua volcano.  It was pretty lucky because the volcano hadn’t performed for at least two weeks and it was our first time seeing an eruption!

Tungurahua volcano erupting

We left early the next morning by bus to Aluasi for the Devil’s Nose train ride.  The town happened to be hosting a race event when we arrived and it was full of the four-foot-tall locals dressed in their traditional attire.  The train route is recognized as an engineering feat for the difficulty and the switchbacks.  The mountain got the name because many people died while building the railroad, but it is known by locals as Condor Mountain because, prior to the railroad, it was a popular nesting spot for the birds.  The river near the mountain is interesting because it naturally flows yellow with sulfur.  The route used to connect towns but currently it is just open as an amusement ride down and back up.  It was very beautiful and really interesting to see how the switchbacks worked, plus riding in trains is always fun.  All in all, many of our bus rides have had better views, but it was interesting!

Nariz de Diablo train ride

We didn’t find the bus stop to catch the bus to Cuenca, so we waited at a random spot along the highway with another backpacker.  Although this is how the locals catch buses, it made me nervous not knowing if we were in the right place or when the next bus would come.  Sure enough though, in less than 20 minutes the bus came along and we had no problems waiving it down.  The views were fantastic all the way to Cuenca with green valleys, farming plots, and mellow mountains.  We made it to Cuenca around 9p.m. and found the cheapest option to sleep in town: hammocks!  It wouldn’t have been bad if the nights there weren’t so cold, but even being wrapped like mummies in wool blankets with multiple layers of clothes wasn’t quite enough.  We toughed it out for three nights though, which must have been too long because I woke up with a strained muscle in my shoulder the third morning!

Cuenca was enjoyable, mostly for the architecture and not so much for the food.  It seemed there was a historic church on every other block, and the town square hosted two cathedrals, the “old” built in the 1500s, and the “new” built in the 1800s.  We spent one day going to Ingapirca, the most important Incan ruins, originally built by the Canari people and then taken over by the Incas.  Only bases of walls remained of everything except the Sun Temple, which stood partially intact.  A short walk from the temple is the Inca Face, a rock cliff that looks like the profile of a face from the viewpoint of the trail.

Ingapirca Ruins (Sun Temple in back)

We spent a couple days in Loja before crossing the border to Peru.  The route from Cuenca to Loja had breathtaking views as the road traveled high and we could see down into valleys and small farm plots.  Loja seemed quite similar to little Otavalo in Northern Ecuador, except that instead of being dominated by natives in traditional dress, it was dominated by affluent people in business suits.  It is the home of a popular law university.  When entering the city center, we crossed under an ornate castle entrance.  It didn’t appear to be historical, so it was just kind of entertaining.  We tried out a small restaurant for dinner that obviously did not receive a lot of tourists, and oh, it was a struggle to communicate!  We took a long time reading over the menu trying to decipher the meanings as the owner tried to explain things to us and then gave up.  When we got the two dishes that we had finally settled on, they were amusingly nothing like what we thought the descriptions meant.  Apparently “tortilla” with chicken in this sense was nothing like what we know as a tortilla, not even close!  It was fried plantain slices with chicken on top.  Very tasty, but confusing!

Originally our plans for Northern Peru included a visit to Kuelap, Incan ruins that are said to rival Machu Picchu’s.  They are set in the Northern Sierras not far from Ecuador, where few tourists venture and the cost is only a fraction of Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately, the more we began to plan the route, the more difficult it seemed.  We eventually found a couple blogs explaining exactly how to get there, and from Loja it would have taken two days and seven modes of transportation!  It would then take the same amount of time to get from there to Lima, the capital of Peru.  Being limited on time, we had to choose the easier route and sadly skip Kuelap.

The easiest way to cross into Peru was via a night bus from Loja to Piura, Peru.  I was a little concerned about crossing the border at 2 a.m. but it actually turned out to be really nice. (I imagine that’s always the case, until it’s not!)  It was just the border officials and our bus of people, so we didn’t have to wait in line and the border officials were friendly and made it very smooth.  Yet again, entering a South American country was easier than we were made to expect!

Una Más Colada Morada, Por Favor!

Other tourists in Ecuador keep telling us they are running into other Coloradans.  We have only met one so far, but there must be something special about this country if so many Coloradans are visiting.

Ecuador can really be divided into three parts: the coastline with beaches and warm weather, the central highlands in which the Andes mountains dominate, and the east which consists of the Orient and a small part of the Amazon.  Of course there is also the Galapagos Islands, but we sadly couldn’t accommodate them on this trip.

We made it across the Colombian/Ecuador border without a hitch.  Most interestingly we were never searched or even lightly checked by a single security guard as we expected we would be.  After quickly crossing and spilling hot coffee all over myself, we caught a bus for Otavalo for just a few dollars.  That was a nice change from Colombia where the buses are a bit expensive.

Otavalo is really known for one thing and that is its large (muy grande) Saturday market.  Most of the town is turned into a tent city of vendors and the majority of the population are of the native peoples, dressed in very traditional clothing and not very tall at all.  You have different wares that range from home goods and typical raw foods, to cultural clothing and pre-made local delicacies.  Megan and I spent a good portion of the day touring all around the market, where we both purchased ponchos.  I definitely look like an idiot gringo with mine on, but it is most comfortable and worth it.  Also, I am pretty sure this is where snuggies drew their inspiration from.  To change up the day a bit Megan and I took a nice walk the Peguche Waterfall that was just outside of town and seemed to be a place that is enjoyed by the locals.  Walking to the waterfall was a big change from being in Colombia, where exploring some areas are off limits to tourists or strongly discouraged for security reasons.  Here we had so much more freedom to roam around and explore. The waterfall was actually quite large and to our surprise there was even a campground associated with it.  If only we had a tent.

(Family walking through market with the old lady carrying some chickens)

(Peguche Waterfall)

That evening we had an interesting time hanging out with some fellow backpackers.  Enjoying a fire, we were sharing stories of our travels.  One of the backpackers, Geoff Christopher, decided to open up a bit and tell us an almost unbelievable story: In 2009 he was the runner up in the Monopoly World Championship.  Who knew there was such a thing? We were all laughing so hard, at both the idea of it and that we were sitting next to the second highest ranked Monopoly player in the world!  He’s even in a documentary.  The competition is not held again until next year, so he still holds this title.  Probably one of the best parts was that they held that championship in Vegas, and the winner was only 19, so there wasn’t much partying for him.

Outside of town there are quite a few different destinations to hit such as waterfalls and volcanoes.  We chose to see a volcano crater lake, much like Crater Lake in Oregon.  Starting off we had a brief, one-hour detour as we took the wrong bus, but ended up getting to enjoy some nice scenery with a good view of Otavalo.  We hopped on the correct bus and made our way to the Cuicocha Lake.  The area is super nice and we had an amazing view of the surrounding towns, but unfortunately we had some dark clouds, hiding the deep turquoise color that the lake is known for.  Still, it was an amazing place and there was a bit of wild flora that caught or attention more than anything.

(Overlooking Cuicocha Lake)

(Looking down on Otavalo)

After really enjoying Otavolo we made our way to Quito to spend a week taking Spanish lessons and staying with our first Couchsurfing host.  Quito is a large metropolitan area spread throughout a valley with buildings sweeping over it all.  Quite a thing to see.  Santiago, our Couchsurfing host, picked us up when our bus arrived.  I guess if we had any concerns, Santiago’s apartment was literally across the street from the U.S. Embassy.  Our first evening was great as Santiago was most generous to us by giving us a bit of a tour and cooking dinner.  He drove us into the city center to show us where our school was and even helped us find which bus to take.  One late night out he showed us around the Basilica, Presidential Palace, and other great landmarks.  This was a huge benefit because there were no crowds and we were much safer with a local.  There are so many churches and plazas that it is almost dizzying.  Santiago introduced us to Colada Morados, which are a classic drink during the upcoming holiday Dia de Muertos, aka All Souls Day or Day of the Dead.  Every evening we ended up having Colada Morados because they are so yummy.  Colada Morados are drinks made of black raspberries, blueberries, dark maize flour, pineapple and range of different herbs and spices, then served hot.  Along with the drink you usually have a piece of bread called Guaguas de Pan, which is made to look like a child and is filled with some fruit filling.  Megan was in heaven with all the baked goods we were consuming.

(Colada Morados and Guaguas de Pan)

(The Basilica)

(Santiago, Bryan, and Megan)

Halfway through our stay Santiago was leaving town for some festivities and took us out to his parents house for lunch and to see some of the surrounding area.  First off, his parents made an amazing lunch of avocado soup, fried fish, rice, fries, salad, and fresh juice.  They live along a canyon with a nice river running through it, with the mountains running along the background on the other side.  Absolutely amazing views!

(Looking across the canyon by Santiago’s families house)

The last day of Spanish class was on Dia de Muertos so we took a field trip to a cemetery to observe the local traditions.  This was super interesting as families showed up to clean grave sites, tell stories of their loved ones, and eat lunch on the graves.  It was amazing to see entire families gathered around grandparents telling stories while young kids watched and listened most intently.  Every once in a while there would be musicians playing over a grave.  This was a great experience and put so much more meaning behind the holiday.

(A couple of men playing music)

Our next stop was Latitude 0 Longitude 0, Mitad del Mundo, or the “Middle of the World”.  This was awesome, being able to straddle the equator.  We didn’t go to the more popular historic marker as it isn’t exactly on the equator, but instead we went to a little museum nearby that hosts a small marker denoting the actual point.  We were given a small tour where we got to conduct different experiments demonstrating effects of the equator (Megan was deemed Egg Master for making an egg balance on a nail head), and also we learned about the local indigenous tribes of the area.  Interesting mix….

(Megan at the “Middle of the World” with her Egg Master cert)

We headed to Banos, the adventure capital in Ecuador.  We were very excited when we were leaving Quito because for the first time it was finally clear enough to see Cotopaxi, a massive volcano mountain.  About 30 minutes before arriving in Banos we hit a bit of a rough time as Megan noticed her bag had been awkwardly pulled under her seat and our DSLR camera and some cash was stolen. Not good!  Megan probably traumatized a small boy sitting behind her when she asked to see the contents of his bag.  Because we stopped so often people changed frequently and whom ever stole our gear probably got off way before we ever noticed.  Guess it’s time for camera shopping again.  When we arrived in Banos I immediately hunted down a police office to explain what happened, and he gave me a look like “here we go again” and told me to go to the police station tomorrow morning to file an official report. Bad day…

After shrugging off a bad day our next day started off with a scrumptious pancake and what ended up being a painless and fast trip to the police station.  Throughout the day Megan feasted on more baked goods, as it almost felt like we were in Europe or something, and we scheduled a white water rafting trip.  Woot!  White water rafting was a blast.  The rapids were only class 3-4, but the guide was great as we would find a good rapid and paddle back up into it and enjoy getting stuck behind it for a bit.  After getting sore muscles from rafting we decided the next day to cycle about 20km while exploring the waterfalls and beauty outside of town.  Against my best judgement, Megan and I even took a cable ride across part of the valley to see one of the waterfalls up close.  Not a great idea for someone afraid of heights, but better than zip lining over there instead.  I know most others might disagree with me on that.  Most, if not all, of the waterfalls were greater than 100m in height.  For about every waterfall we saw there were countless more we missed.  It is intense how many waterfalls flow into the valleys near Banos.  We spent the last day touring the city again, but this time taking some trails on the edge of town and trying to see the active volcano nearby.  It was always covered in clouds.  Instead, we were entertained by some people jumping off a bridge, and we finally tried out the Melcocha (sugar cane taffy) which is made all over Banos. Yum!

(Our raft nearly swallowed up by a rapid)

(Really tall waterfall)

(River next to Banos and the bridge people jump/swing off)

I was able to get a handful of videos uploaded this past week.  Some of them are from Southeast Asia and the rest are South America.  If I get good internet again I will hopefully get some more up.  http://vimeo.com/ballweberb/videos

Looking for Juan Valdez

In a country not so far away we start the second part of our adventure.  Colombia: a country that has so much to offer travelers, but is still trying to escape its past.

After a long flight out of Hong Kong we made it to Los Angeles for a quick break, replenished needed supplies, and enjoyed a decent hotel.  Checking in for our flight to Bogota was a bit frustrating as Spirit Airlines requires onward tickets out of Colombia for foreigners (despite that this is not required by the Colombian government).  In haste we purchased two tickets out of Bogota to Quito, Ecuador through Expedia.  This got us into the terminal where I promptly cancelled the tickets.  Gotta love the free cancellation in 24hrs!  Landing in Bogota the next afternoon, customs was a breeze.

After being quoted very inflated prices, a security guard helped us to find a reasonable taxi and got us on our way to La Candelaria.  This is the old city center that houses many Spanish Colonial and Baroque style buildings.  Bogota sits just a little over 8,600 feet above sea level, so it is quite comfortable during the day but gets chilly at night.  We weren’t ready for those temperatures.  At our hostel we immediately were given a run-down on safety: not going out at night, when it’s ok to pull out the camera, which areas to stay away from, what people to watch out for (everyone), and what real police officers look like.

(Bolivar Square in the Old City Center)

We spent a day acclimating to our surroundings, checking out the local delicacies, and enjoying the scenery.  It was nice to just walk around and observe the locals.  A considerable amount of people in the old city center are students to the copious amount of universities in the area.  We picked up a Spanish-English dictionary at a University bookstore; quite essential as there isn’t much flexibility for those who don’t speak Spanish.  We found that hot chocolate is a very common drink, especially for breakfast.  Even better, at least for Megan, is that they always offered it with either milk or water.  Hot chocolate is just the beginning, as there are European style bakeries everywhere, so every morning we had fresh baked breads and pastries.

That evening we chilled out and watched the soccer game with some Club Colombia beer.  The game was great to watch as Colombia came back from two points down to tie the game.  This meant that Colombia qualified for the World Cup.  That night we could hear the partying throughout town, which later brought out the riot police because people started tearing stuff up.  In the morning we found out people had danced on top of the bus stops and we saw white powder (no idea what) covering the streets.

Bogota has some very nice museums.  The Botero Museum, named after a Colombian artist very famous for his over sized depictions of people and objects, was quite spectacular as it showcased much of his private collection, including pieces by other artists such as Picasso, Dali, Moore, and Monet.  Botero’s artwork was definitely one of a kind!  The Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) might be one of the more impressive museums we’ve seen as it has a large collection of pre-Colombian gold work.  Pieces ranged from very basic bracelets to intricate masks, figures, and beads.  Often it seemed that the smaller the gold object, the more intricate detail was put into it.

(Botero painting)

(Pre-Colombian Gold Piece)

We took a bike tour one day that was led by a former journalist from California named Mike.  Mike knows a ton about Colombia and has built great relationships with many locals.  The bike tour lasted 5 hours and encompassed much more than a typical city tour might.  We began in the old city center, seeing tons of street art along the way and historically important locations such as where officials were assassinated.  Further down the road we stopped off at one of the largest markets in Bogota to try a dozen or more local fruits.  This was awesome and unbelievably good!  Dragon fruit here tastes even better than it does in S.E. Asia, and we had never before seen many of the fruits.  The avocados are ginormous!  We passed on the opportunity to try a drink that consists of a few different liqueurs, some fruit, nuts, and a live crab blended together.  Apparently it is an aphrodisiac, but no one in the group was up for finding out.  We made our way to the red light district.  Of the three areas of Bogota where prostitution is legal, this red light district is the only one where prostitutes can be visible on the street.  We didn’t linger long as the sights weren’t great. The next stop was what I was ready for: a small coffee factory where coffee is roasted and packaged to be exported, with the best beans being exported and the lower quality ones staying in Colombia.  I enjoyed a nice cup of very fresh coffee.

(Local girl posing in front of some street art)

We stopped by an important cemetery that contains most of the past presidents of Colombia, along with quite a few graves that are considered miraculous (like the unidentified remains of a man).  Locals visit these graves to pray when someone is sick, for example.  The variation in the quality of the presidential grave sites was interesting.  One former president’s grave was just an outline with a small plaque (he wasn’t much liked).  A highlight of the tour was when some young boys met up with us at a park and performed a rap about corruption, drugs, and violence.  Throughout the rest of the ride we observed more awesome street art with background information and stories, the old bull fighting ring, and finished it off with watching people gamble on which plastic homes guinea pigs would choose from a few meters away when let loose.  I’d hate to see what happens to an uncooperative guinea pig.

(La Candelaria Area)

Bogota is lined on one side by mountains, including the 10,340 foot high Mt. Monserrate which is topped with a church. There are three ways up: tram, funicular, or walking.  We were told tourists should take the trail on the weekend when many locals do as you are likely to be mugged during the week.  The day we decided to go up, the trail was lined with hundreds of people making the journey up and down.  Once at the top we had a magnificent view of Bogota.

(Looking down on Bogota from Monserrate)

That evening we attended a baby shower put on by the owners of the hostel for their son and daughter-in-law.  The shower was most interesting as there were just as many men as women and even for a short while a few police dropped in just to observe.  I never found out why the police were there, but I think it had to do with having a group gathering.  Megan and I participated in all the games and were only told the rules in English if it was in the best interest of our teammates.  Luckily we could usually figure out what was going on, although one unusual game involved me hopping around on one leg for 30 minutes.  To end the night properly we stayed up with the owners’ adult children and a friend and enjoyed some drinks and salsa dancing.  This was quite the event to finish out Bogota!

The next day we headed to the bus terminal to endure a 25 hour bus ride to Cartagena, a city on the Northern coast.  The bus ride had gone pretty smooth with only one check-point, but there was one concerning thing: as we hit traffic just outside of Cartagena, I saw a group of kids run up to the bus and try to pry the luggage compartment open.  Luckily the compartment was secured and nothing came of it.

Cartagena is probably one of the most tourist areas in Colombia.  It resides on the Caribbean coast and use to be a port city used during the slave trade.  Most of the buildings are Spanish Colonial and the old city center resides within the fort walls. While we were there, Interpol was having its 82nd General Assembly. I didn’t know if this was a good thing or not, but there were police helicopters flying around the city the entire time we were there.

It seems most of our time in Cartagena was spent working out later trip details, sweating profusely, and cooking up some yummy hamburgers (another hostel with a kitchen!).  Touring the city within the fort was pretty amazing.  There were quite a few churches plotted throughout and the old architectural style of the area was impressive.  At our hostel we met a German, Martin, who we spent a lot of time with and went out for ice cream during the early evenings.  That was most enjoyable as Megan got to have dairy free ice cream (helado con agua), we enjoyed more of the city when it was much cooler out, and Martin was great company.

(The main entrance into the old city center/fort)

(Chilling out in the evening with Martin)

As luck would have it we scored some plane tickets to Cali that were cheaper than the 20+ hour bus ride.  Cali is a nice city and is known as the salsa capital of Colombia. Unfortunately, we didn’t do any dancing as we were only there during the early part of the week.  We did spend a full day exploring downtown.  There were some impressive buildings, especially an extravagant, Gothic style church, and the city was much less centered on tourism than Cartagena.  Megan was a bit frustrated as every time we pulled out the camera a local would immediately tell us to put it away.  Not that we couldn’t take photos, but they were concerned about us getting the camera stolen.  We didn’t get many photos because of this, but Cartagena and Bogota were much more photogenic anyway.  From Cali we took a night bus to the border and crossed into Ecuador.

(Gothic style church in Cali)

While in Colombia, we really enjoyed the food.  Besides the delicious bakeries everywhere, we could always find a nice lunch or dinner special for about $3 that came with a large bowl of hearty soup, meat (once it was horse, not bad), rice, potatoes, beans, salad, fried bananas, a fresh glass of juice, and often a dessert.  One particular combo we had (we were told was a traditional Colombian selection) came with not one, but FIVE sources of protein: sausage, chicken, beef, pork, and red beans.  Megan was sad we didn’t have the camera with us for that one.

(Typical Colombia lunch + a soup)

Colombia is an amazing country, and coming into it we were both a little worried about safety, but overall we felt quite safe and comfortable.  Most locals seemed to keep an eye on us, in a curious but protective way.  There were active, peaceful protests in Bogota to fight corruption and everywhere we saw people really engaged in bringing change.  Over the next few years I can only see the country becoming safer and I can’t emphasize enough how beautiful a country it is to visit.