Into South America

Trip Start Aug 23, 2006
Trip End Apr 15, 2007

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Monday, November 20, 2006

Obviously it's been way too long since I posted an update. Panama and Costa Rica flew by quickly, as we expected given that they're quite a bit more expensive than the rest of Central America. Both were deserving of longer visits, and who knows, maybe someday when we've got a positive cash flow we'll go back and enjoy all they have to offer. And maybe next time I'll make it through Panama without repeatedly injuring myself. Nothing like getting a little reminder that gravity, slippery slopes, rocks, tall grass and barbed wire are potentially bad combinations...

Our 2 or so months in Central America flew by, but were filled with new experiences. Just to recap, we visited 7 countries, climbed Mayan temples, tramped through jungles, spotted exotic wildlife, swam with a whale shark, nurse sharks, turtles and rays, snorkeled and scuba-ed tropical reefs, climbed an active volcano, explored caves with only candles for light, swam an underground river and traveled by car, pickup, minivan, minibus, chicken bus, boat and plane. Not a bad start really.

The most surprising thing about Central America was how familiar it was in the midst of all the foreignness. At times, it felt like we were seeing the U.S. as it must have been 80 or so years ago. Long distance travel is by bus not plane, rural roads are unpaved, farms pump well water with windmills rather than electric pumps, anywhere outside of cities electricity is unreliable or unavailable, people still cook over wood fires, many still rely on horses for transport and farming, chickens are in many yards, the crow of roosters is a familiar sound, and so it probably was for our grandparents. Time travel on the cheap. And all this while surrounded by cell phone towers, internet cafes, SUV's, and most other symbols of modern life. Central America is lacking in a lot of things, but contrast isn't one of them.

From Panama we caught a flight to Colombia. I know, not exactly the first country to come to mind when you think of a getaway spot in South America, but we'd heard such good things about it from fellow travelers we thought we should give it a look, and it didn't disappoint. We started in Cartegena, on the Caribbean coast, moved on to Playa Blanca for a couple of days of primitive living on the beach, some snorkeling and lots of seafood, then back to Cartegena for a day of exploring the city.

Moving on from there we hopped down to Medellin, but overnighted in the small mountain town of Marinilla about an hour away. A fantastic place, much like a dressed up Tilaran with a busy town square, loads of cafes, bakeries and butcher shops. Not much to do there but charming as hell and good for a day of taking it easy.

Back to the buses for a day and we ended up in Salento, yet another small mountain town, but a bit less developed than Marinilla. Just the same, it had a great vibe and plenty to do. We walked country lanes spotting toucans, parrots and mot-mots, toured a small coffee plantation where they process the beans by hand, and day tripped to the hot springs in Santa Rosa de Cabal where we were surrounded by hundreds of Colombians doing the same. Somehow or another we ended up spending 4 days in Salento, and could probably have spent more if we didn't suffer from permanently itchy feet.

Another day spent on buses and we arrived in San Cipriano, a rainy jungle town on the Rio Cipriano accessible only by railway. Since no trains run there anymore, the locals have built motorcycle powered rail cars to transport travelers and themselves back and forth. Ingenious, effective and more than a little fun actually. The ride there featured the most conspicuous display of security yet. At least a company of infantry deployed along about a 15 mile stretch of road, reinforced by a large number of national police. The road was secured from rebel incursions in the last year or two, and if the relaxed attitude of the troops was any indication, it's been a fair success. Our taxi was stopped at one of the 6 or so random checkpoints and all the men were frisked and had our bags searched and ID's scrutinized. You get used to these pretty quickly here.

As far as the security situation goes, it's about what you would expect for a country in the midst of a 40 year civil war. National police man permanent checkpoints along the Panamericana Highway and soldiers man roving checkpoints along more rural routes. The locals take these in stride, and for the most part the soldiers and police are polite and pretty relaxed. Only once was the check more than a quick frisking, and that was passing through the outskirts of guerrilla territory where you would expect it.

As far as the political situation goes, President Uribe's get tough security plan has been successful in some respects. He was recently reelected in a landslide largely due to his success in bottling up the rebels in their jungle stronghold, while allowing life (and the economy) to continue with some sense of normalcy in most of the rest of the country. Most interestingly, he was reelected despite a constitutional limit of one term for the presidency. Go figure. At the same time, he hasn't had much luck in addressing the underlying problems that fuel the insurgency (nor has he really tried), or in slowing the flow of cocaine which funds it. So despite the successes, South America's longest running civil war will likely continue for the foreseeable future. This is tragic for all the usual, abstract reasons, but especially so once you get to know the Colombian people. They are the warmest, most welcoming of all those we've met in the past three months. Unfailingly helpful and friendly, it's very difficult to believe they're the product of nearly unending political violence nearly since the founding of their country, but especially for the last 40 years. To top it all off you have the irony of the U.S. funding both sides of the conflict, one through foreign aid (the third largest after Israel and Egypt) and the other through our continuing demand for cocaine. Funny stuff, eh?

Anyway, we had a great time and are now in Ecuador. Quito surprised us with it's modernity after a bus ride from the border through a mostly poor, agricultural region. The striking landscapes of Colombia were almost immediately trumped by what we saw rolling into Ecuador. It seems each country is more beautiful than the next.

Off to the Amazon region tomorrow. More to follow...

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