“How is this possible?” This was my response to the grey skies I received when I traveled from Lima, Peru to Salinas, Ecuador. My fortune did not improve as the days went on and I moved north; there was no sun to be found in Ecuador at this time of year.
Apparently a week prior to my arrival the beaches of Ecuador were full of blue skies and Coco Locos; but that beautiful weather seemed to have vanished by the time I got to there. It was now muddy beaches, depressed looking tourists, and bored backpackers. What’s a beach without the sun? It’s not that Ecuador is ugly or even unremarkable, it was just bad luck that I arrived at the time of year that its beaches turn into gloomy ghost towns. I had to my accept defeat, cut my losses, and buy a plane ticket to Cali, Colombia.
When you mention the country of Colombia the first thing that comes to peoples minds is Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, violence, and dusty towns filled with donkey’s roaming the streets. This could not be farther from the truth! The turbulent violence that made Colombia the murder country of the world 10 years ago has been painted and paved over with upgraded infrastructure, shiny new cities, and high-rise condos. I’m not saying that Colombia still isn’t dangerous; there still are cartel ties here, the FARC, the murderous indigenous, and poverty that drives crime; but it’s up and coming.
Arriving in Cali I was shocked to see brand new paved roads, people actually driving in their lanes, and a strong polite Police force keeping the peace. After I landed in Colombia’s 3rd largest city I grabbed a beer and wandered the streets, awaiting a bus to my hostel. You can drink a beer anywhere in Colombia, it’s no big deal, but it can cause you to lose track of time.
Cali is a valley city that is surrounded by lush green hills while the inner city is filled with large branching trees. As far as the people of Cali and Colombia, they were are by far the friendliest I have come across in my travels throughout South America. I realized this as I tossed back some beers in a mall bar, missing my bus, while talking to some locals in Spanish about my travels. Imagine my surprise when the commended me on how good I spoke Spanish and how well I understood it! Considering I wrote a blog post when I first started traveling about how much I was struggling with Spanish, this was a huge confidence booster.
I arrived to my hostel later than expected, and ended up eating hot wings at an American pub next to it. I was so tired of ethnic food I just wanted something extremely unhealthy like they had back home, and those wings didn’t disappoint. The following morning I met some awesome older Aussie guys who I had breakfast with. One of them was going out to the surrounding hills to go tubing down a river. It sounded like fun and he offered to pay for me to go, so I went. It took us about three hours to reach our destination but we got to drive through lush green tropical forests. As we journeyed there I noticed a lot of Military presence on the side of the road, no doubt looking for FARC and drugs. The village we went to was a super cool place you expected to find Indiana Jones looking for a long lost artifact.
I didn’t realize it when I agreed to go, but the means of transportation to the river was a jerry rigged railroad cart hooked up to a motorcycle. The motorcycles back wheel propelled us along the train track rapidly to our destination. Despite the obvious safety concerns, this was an awesome means of travel. We finally got to the river, floated down it, had a few beers, and then returned back to Cali.
On our way back to Cali we were stopped and searched by the military. Due to the fact we were going to the river, I neglected to bring any form of ID. I told the military guys I didn’t have ID and that I was from California. They pulled me aside and began to surround me on all sides, loosening their machine guns from around their shoulders. I thought I was surely going to go to jail or be executed. Their captain handed something to the driver of the bus. The next thing I knew I was posing in the middle of six armed militants from Colombia throwing up “West Coast” signs for their personal photos. They shook my hand, asked me how I was enjoying Colombia, and let me go on my way.
The following night I went to stay with a girl I had met through Couch Surfing. Her name was Stephany, and she was by far one of the coolest people I have ever stayed with. She was studying to be a doctor and loved electronic music. She had recently returned from Tomorrowland in Belgium, and was looking to repay the kindness she received to traveler’s visiting Cali. The first night I was there she took myself, and another girl from California who was staying with her, to a free music festival that was happening; Petronio. It was amazing ethnic music from the pacific areas of Colombia, heavily influenced by the African/Caribbean fishing towns in that region. The drink of choice was a homemade concoction from the local vegetation that tasted similar to eggnog mixed with battery acid. It really got you moving.
The following day Stephany took us to the various sites of Cali: Crystal Rey, San Antonio Colonial district, and to the world famous Juan Valdez Coffee Shop. In the evening we went to one of her friends little sisters Quinceanera. For those of you not in the know, a Quinceanera is when a girl turns fifteen and enters womanhood. They have an extremely formal party with a dance floor, a DJ, and most importantly, an open bar! As the night went on, and I drank more and more Aguardiente, I somehow danced Bachata perfectly, took photos with everyone (because I looked like a famous musician to them), and got puked on by the girl from California. Besides the puke, it was a wonderful night!
My time with Stephany was amazing. She treated me like a great host would, and I will forever be indebted to her for her kindness.
We are in the homestretch of my trip, next stop Medellin; the seat of Pablo Escobar’s old Empire.