Colombia 2019: a trip we had been anticipating ever since we got married. While originally we were planning to go to Peru, we changed direction at the last minute in order to have a more relaxing vacation instead of a hiking-centered one. Peru is full of incredible mountains that beg to be trekked, but Colombia has other treasures that don’t involve 15,000 feet summits. Since we have both fallen dreadfully out of shape over the past few months, it made sense to hold off on serious mountain climbing in order to actually enjoy our vacation. It was our first big trip together, totaling 17 days, and it was an absolute whirlwind. We called it our belated honeymoon; because of our work schedules and limited PTO, we weren’t able to take a real honeymoon after we got married last July. As a side note, it was actually maybe better to wait a little more than a year to take our honeymoon; we got a lot more time to build up the excitement and anticipation, and it was another big event to look forward to long after our wedding guests had bid us adieu.
Because it was less than a month prior to the trip that we decided to go with Colombia over Peru, a lot of research had to be done (read: on my part. I am 100% the trip planner in our relationship!) and deciding on some potential areas we’d like to see. However, at the end of the day we only made two nights’ reservations at the beginning of the trip, electing to let the trip guide us instead of planning everything out in advance. What we knew for sure was that we wanted to see the eje cafetero–the coffee axis–and that we wanted to swim in some Caribbean waters.
Fast forward to August 29th, and we undertook the arduous journey of arriving via land to our first destination: Salento. Famous for the tall wax palm trees in a valley nearby, and surrounded by lush green mountains, it seemed the perfect place to kick off our adventure. In reality, the adventure started as we began the long journey. It looked a little like this:
- 40-minute taxi to the northern bus terminal in Quito
- 5.5-hour bus ride from Quito to the border city of Tulcan
- 20-minute taxi from Tulcan to the border at Rumichaca
- Walking over the border, passing through migrations on either side
- 15-minute taxi to the Colombian border town of Ipiales
- Wait for it…a 15 (FIFTEEN) hour bus ride from Ipiales to Calarcá, because we missed the only bus that goes directly to Armenia by a mere 30 minutes. This route included numerous stops, 4 check points where our bags were searched every time by police officers, delays for road construction, and seats that didn’t seem quite as comfortable as the company had advertised
- A 30-minute wait while chatting with a jovial Colombian transit company man, followed by a 20-minute mini bus ride from Calarcá to Armenia
- A 1-hour mini bus ride from Armenia to Salento
- A 10-minute walk from where the mini bus dropped us off to our hostel
This journey is not for the faint-hearted. After leaving home around 10:00 am Thursday, we didn’t arrive at our destination until 12:00 pm on Friday. Gonza and I both knew after that bus ride that we would prefer to adjust our budget in order to fly more and spend less time in Colombia. Colombian buses just aren’t great.
There’s nothing quite like traveling to get to know a person on a more intimate level. While Gonza and I know each other fairly well (having been together for almost 4 years at this point…), it was an interesting experience to navigate a major international trip together. What are our travel priorities? What are our preferences? What are our must-haves, and what are our day-ruiners? What can we just NOT handle? These are questions we explored over the past few weeks.
At this point, I’m going to take a pause to consider our vacation preferences. Gonza’s dream vacation looks something like posting up on a beach with a beer and just relaxing for several days. Throw in great food and a fancy hostel and Gonza is thrilled. For me, while I can appreciate a day or two of beach lounging, I generally gravitate towards adventure, moving around to see as much as possible, and adrenaline-filled activities. For example, when my girlfriends came to Ecuador for my wedding, I promptly took them to the jungle where on day one we scrambled over waterfalls through the rain and on day two we went white water rafting. Or when I went to Colombia with my sister back in 2013, we were moving every couple nights and our trip included a night in a hammock in a national park and also a four-day jungle trek, among other adventurous excursions.
Where does the difference come from? I’ve been pondering why our preferences are so divergent when it comes to vacation time, and I think I have an idea. I think it goes beyond mere personal preference. It lies in financial, societal, and cultural differences. Let’s start by stating the obvious: adventurous activities tend to be expensive. I want to recognize my own privilege here in that my parents were able to provide my sister and I with some pretty amazing outdoor adventures because they had the financial mans to do so as white middle-class Americans. Activities such as occasional ski days, our annual camping trip, and my week-long outdoor camps as a Girl Scout were all made possible by the financial security that my parents enjoyed. And while camping may be seen as a cheap vacation, the gear needed in order to have a comfortable trip is not. Sending each child to an outdoor overnight adventure camp is certainly not as affordable as taking your children to a chill beach trip where you can cook your own food and rent a moderate apartment or condo. As an adult, my experiences with adventure activities as a child turned into interest in even more intense outdoor activities like white water rafting and bridge jumping and canyoning and sky diving. These activities are all costly and not accessible to everyone. In fact, in all the adventure sports I’ve participated in in Ecuador, 95% of the others participating are foreigners, not Ecuadorians.
Beyond financial considerations, or perhaps built upon them, white American cultures tend to prize a pioneering spirit; after all, our ancestors–oftentimes not even far back–were immigrants to the “New World”. They had to have an adventurous spirit in order to survive and thrive in a foreign land. The “white people journeying into unknown lands” narrative is celebrated; immigrants from other places (I’m thinking Mexico and Central America, for example) likely had a far more harrowing journey to arrive in the States and more difficulties upon arrival as well. In a sense, I think there’s still a legacy of that adventure-seeking in many white families. My dad, for example, always took us camping, generally on one big week-long trip and other small weekend trips throughout the year. Our trip involved hikes of 3-8 miles each day; traipsing up steep rock stairs, clambering across fallen tree trunks 10 feet in the air, diving into glacial lakes, and roughing it in a tent and sleeping bag was what our vacation consisted of. While we might have groaned about 3 am wake up calls to start our journey into the mountains, secretly we relished the sense of true adventure that we felt getting up long before dawn.
And finally, on a larger scale, I wonder if our preferences might have to do with a larger sense of stability. While I grew up in a country and society that has been fairly stable, Gonza grew up in a country with semi-regular golpes de estado, or coup d’etats. Where I grew up with some recessions and economic surges, Gonza grew up with a financial downswing so drastic it forced many Ecuadorians to flee the country searching for work abroad: the 1999/2000 banking crises and switch to the dollar. Many Ecuadorian families were financially ruined during this time. Compare that to the financial crisis that the US went through in the 2008-2009 recession, where my parents were able to take advantage of low home prices to purchase a new house. If Ecuadorians have generally experienced much more turbulence and much less stability than your average white American, does it really seem strange that they would usually prefer a relaxing beach trip over a risky outdoor adventure? Maybe they’ve had enough adrenaline in their day-to-day lives. Moreover, if you don’t trust your government, you probably are skeptical of any adventure activities that are supposed to be regulated by that same government. I can say with certainty that the paragliding I did on the Ecuadorian coast was NOT the safest activity: I literally was tied to a rope–a normal rope–and told “corre!” (run!) in the sand as the boat sped off. Compared to the experience in Hawaii where I was out on a boat fully in the water, securely tied in with various harnesses and safety ropes, and slowly ascended into the air with a controlled release, Ecuadorian safety standards can seem pretty dubious.
So back to Colombia…with such different ideas of what an awesome vacation looked like, I was apprehensive. I wanted to be sure that we both had a really good time, with a solid mix of places and activities that we could each enjoy. We ended up spending most of our time between the coffee region, Medellín, and the Cartagena area.
We learned that literally no destination on our list was perfect, despite all the research we had done. Salento was overpriced and had sub-par food; it led us to wonder if all Colombian food was so thoroughly unremarkable. Filandia, our second destination, ran out of water in the ENTIRE TOWN our first evening, which led to us only staying one night as it still wasn’t on by noon the following day. Medellín had Gonza really on edge as it is a large and bustling city and we stood out a lot as I am a tall gringa. Cartagena was hot as HELL–seriously, I can’t remember the last place I’ve visited that had such oppressive, unending heat, even at night (we elected basically never to leave our hostel during the middle of the day, preferring to relax in the air-conditioned room). Playa Blanca, the paradisaical white sand beach an hour or so from Cartagena, had extremely rugged accommodations and limited food options for non-fish eaters. Bogotá was like a bigger Quito, a city high in the Andes with more traffic than our home base.
A few moments during the trip, each of us broke down as a result of what was happening. My lowest moment happened in Filandia, where Gonza showered upon arrival but I had elected to wait to shower until the evening. By the evening there was no water, I had been sweating, and it was that time of the month and the water never came back. I went about 48 hours without a real shower until we made it to Medellín. Gonza was an angel; he went out and bought wet wipes and then helped me bathe using a gallon of drinking water. Gonza’s low happened when we were at Playa Blanca and the electricity–provided via generator and only from 6 pm to 7 am–went out at 2 in the morning and our fan went with it. Temperatures were 80-90 degrees with 80-90 percent humidity, so it was basically impossible for us to fall asleep again. I peeked outside and saw the lounge chairs were reachable, and prompted moved one out to right on the edge of the waves where I could feel a breeze. Gonza’s anger didn’t allow him to think straight until about an hour later when he finally joined me for a few hours of less than peaceful sleep. Now we can look back and laugh, but in those moments it certainly wasn’t funny.
But there were also incredible highlights. Hiking through the majestic wax palms and into the mist in the Colombian mountains. Wandering through Salento and appreciating the incredible colors found in the traditional homes and business buildings. A wonderful conversation with a local filandeño who was a municipal government adviser and bread shop owner and community activist, who told us proudly about his town and gave us a free donut. A day tour with Real City Tours in Medellín, where we heard stories of Medellín’s origins, destructive past that had it as the world’s most dangerous city in the 90s, and its rebirth and ongoing transformation from the mouth of a local who had lived through the violence. Lunch over a beautiful river valley near Guatapé. Gonza’s first flight in 16 years. A wild night at a salsoteca in Cartagena where we drank in the streets and then danced to live salsa music until 3 am. Playing in a tranquil, turquoise ocean at a white sand beach. A dip into a bioluminescent bay where our hands, covered with plankton, sparkled like stars and Gonza faced his fear of swimming at night. Our first time ever getting delivery pizza together, at a lovely AirBnB. Gonza’s child-like joy and excitement in the Botero museum in Bogotá, where he got to see some of his favorite artists in real-life.
Travel is beautiful and uncomfortable and imperfect and awe-inspiring. It requires a degree of flexibility and acceptance higher than everyday life. The ability to laugh at the challenges and less great moments shortly after they occur is key to enjoying the trip. And making sure to consider the other person’s preferences is important, too. In our case, that meant allowing for relaxing time and adventure time in equilibrium. Making sure we had a couple days of chill beach time, but also taking a quick trip to the bioluminescent bay for an adventurous night swim. Relaxing and reading/drawing one afternoon in Filandia, but also hiking 6 miles in the wax palm valley. At the end of the trip, Gonza and I realized our favorite places were actually the same: small towns and the beautiful beach. We learned that we both function better with air conditioning and good food. And we’d certainly rather spend more money on flying and spend less time traveling: prioritizing our physical comfort over more days on the road. Learning together about how to travel was a great, although occasionally challenging experience. I’m excited for what comes next. Since we’ll be living in California in 2020, perhaps a Mexican vacation is called for next year…maybe a combination of jungle trek to ancient temples and Riviera Maya beach relaxing.