Lex and I started Andes Not The Mint with the goal of sharing our experience on the road in South America. As we’ve detailed over the months, we’ve encountered some great times, wonderful places and amazing people. However, the thing about being on the road is that, uhhh, you sure do spend a lot of time on the road. Travel is filled with moments in between experiences, transitional passages that sometimes elongate into days on end. We call this sort of thing the La Rioja Triangle, in honor of our lost week in central Argentina back in March. Busing your way through a continent can be strangely tiring, and there are times when nerves get frayed and the spirit gets a little heavy. Sometimes, it is hard to think straight and sort out your next step.
Such was our scenario in Ipiales, wandering the streets looking for a canister of camp-stove cooking gas we would never find and attempting to resolve an air ticket snafu we would never resolve. Alas, when in doubt, you can always just get on the bus and get on your way. After two nights in a slightly bizarre hotel room that resembled the teachers’ lounge at my old elementary school, we decided to get a beat on it.
Somehow or another, traveling from Ipiales to Cali, we neglected to consider the 30 percent rule. That is, that the bus always takes approximately 30% longer than promised. Our nine hour ride turned into thirteen very long hours through admittedly spectacular Southern Colombia countryside. We arrived in Cali a bit disoriented and not at all ready for the general chaos that is the Cali Terminal de Bus. The vast majority of travelers do not seem to enjoy Cali very much and I believe the first moments in the bus terminal may have something to do with it. We also just happened to be lucky enough to jump into a taxi commandeered by a toothless, drug-addled maniac. Follow that up with a poor choice of lodging (i.e. windowless room in a backpacker party joint), and we were more than ready to be on our way first thing in the morning.
After another four hours in two different buses, we arrived in Salento, a small town nestled in the heart of Colombia’s verdant coffee region. Although a bit tired from the week gone by, a warm and happy feeling soon came over us. Salento is a wonderful little town, entirely “vale la pena” (worth the struggle) of our arduous journey here. Weekends see the town filled with Colombians from nearby cities, enjoying some relaxing time out in the country. Salento is the perfect combination of traditional, rural lifestyles paired with a welcoming environment for visitors. Our friends Jared and Ang told us about Salento—how, for Ang, it was one of few places in all her travels she could see herself moving to someday. After just a day here, I am beginning to feel the same way. We’ll be offering mini-posts on various activities here in town and the region over the week to come. We have some great stuff lined up for you, dear ANTM dot com reader!
Most especially nice for us, is the night-and-day difference between Colombians and Ecuadorians. I don’t know how else to phrase this except to say that Colombians are really, really nice people. La Zona Cafetelera, in particular, is known for the exceptionally warm quality of its residents. When you pass a stall or storefront, you are almost always greeted with a warm “good afternoon/morning” and then they will always welcome you with “it’s my pleasure to have you here, please come in.” In Ecuador, you either get a cold stare or a military-like demand to know what it is you are looking for.
From the moment we crossed into Ecuador, I just couldn’t quite feel it. To be fair, we had developed such strong feelings for Bolivia that Ecuador had large national shoes to fill. However, the truth is that Ecuador just isn’t a place I’d like to go back to. For the most part, the cities are absurdly riddled with theft and random assaults, and the people in the other destinations just seem flat-out tired of having visitors come through. Even people who work in lodging accommodations or other tourist services seem to have a deep-seated fatigue of visitors. Your average interactions with regular townfolk tend to be distant, and, more often than not, people simply stare at you and say nothing. Not exactly a greeting that makes you feel welcome. We don’t expect a parade in our honor each time we roll into town and certainly don’t look for a subservient, “I’m here to please YOU” dynamic between ourselves and the people we encounter. It just gets a bit tiring being in a place where it feels like people would rather you just spend some money and go away as quickly as you came.
By contrast, in Bolivia, when you approach somebody with respect and genuine interest, you will almost always be met with a remarkable generosity of spirit. I know it isn’t fair to paint a whole country with a broad brush, but the broad brush is out so I am going to paint this one step further. Ecuador has a reputation for eco-tourism that has devolved into a half-hearted cash-in mentality in a lot of places. People seem more concerned about development and making money and don’t seem particularly taken with much sentimental feeling for the “naturaleza” and landscape. For a poor nation such as Ecuador, this is entirely fair, but it is nevertheless disappointing to encounter. There is more to “eco-tourism” than just tossing a shack up on the last small bit of land not suitable for farming. Ideally, there is the notion that people who value and cherish the wild places of their homeland want to share their knowledge and experience with visitors and, of course, be able to make a living in the process. In Ecuador, it really seems more about the money. I feel pretty bad saying this, understanding all of the entitlement that comes with my position of having been born and raised in a fully industrialized, wealthy nation. But what can I say? This wasn’t the feeling we had in Bolivia, an even lesser-developed nation, and certainly not in Chile, where the Patagonian wilderness is an emblem of national pride. So there ya have it. Thumbs down, Ecuador.
Colombia is a complicated country, certainly not free of serious problems that are well-known throughout the world. The war with FARC is not over and there are parts of the country that are virtual lawless zones, even today. Colombians are sensitive to the perception of their nation as a dangerous place and I think, perhaps, it’s this bad reputation that Colombia has been saddled with for so many years that encourages many people to go out of their way to be helpful to visitors. I guess it’s the New Yorker in me speaking now, attempting to dissect what exactly it is that makes the average Colombian so freakin’ nice! I think it is enough to say that people here just have a genuine warmth about them.
Case in point, yesterday morning while I was drinking coffee grown down the hill from here, a visiting troop of national police came to our hostal, the lovely Plantation House. The chief of police, from the nearby city of Pereira, wants his officers to learn English out of a concern that they be viewed as helpful and receptive to foreigners. If you ask me, it is more the responsibility of foreigners to learn Spanish but the idea itself is certainly well-intentioned. To aid in this effort, the captain brought a group of officers to the Plantation House, known for its popularity among foreign travelers. We were paired up a young guy new to the force named Jorge. Later in the day, walking through town, Jorge flagged us down, telling us he how he just got off the phone with his girlfriend and that she would really like to meet us as well. Long story short, we’ve been invited to his home in Pereira to hang out and see the sights. We plan to take him up on it!
Later that night, back on the porch at the Plantation House, we learned this sort of thing is not uncommon in Colombia. Today, we are taking it easy, enjoying the perfect mountain weather and taking some time to catch up on emails and such. Salento has returned to us our zeal for travel and renewed our appreciation for the trip we are on now. It is a wonderful thing, wandering into a town and thinking to yourself, “Hey, it’s really nice here. How ’bout we stay awhile?”
Loving the blog, Jared sent me the link to it & I have found it really interesting, and the slideshow photos are awesome, thanks, Jill (Jared’s mum)
Didn’t you partake in the Ecadorian Parade (?)
I cannot imagine a 13 hr bus trip — you both deserve all
the kindness and welcoming friendships that you are finding in Columbia.
Looking forward to reading more.
love mom w.
Hi guys, my name is Yadira, very good friend of Mrs. W. I am a Colombian lady and enjoying very much your blog. Very proud and happy that you feel welcome in my country,honestly”There is nothing like Colombia” Anyway, enjoy every moment of your time in my country, if you happen to stop by Barranquilla”La arenosa” by all means, let my know and my family will welcome you with open arms and warm heart!! Must go to Taganga, small beach town,great food and hot nights
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