The small, provincial town of Villa de Leiva, Colombia – Aug. 28-29, 2011

Villa de Leiva. (The first of many jumping photos to come. This was the 8th try!)

Last year when I visited Villa de Leiva, I came away with the impression that it was just a sleepy little town with cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.  The best part for me were the besitos de novia, the delicious, merengue-covered cookies that are endemic to Villa de Leiva.

A cross-section of a besito de novia

On the morning of Aug. 28, 2011, Anna and I made our way from Bogota to Tunja by bus, and then onward to the sleepy little town of Villa de Leiva.  When we arrived, the plaza was full of people flying kites.  It wasn’t as sleepy and “provincial” as I had previously thought!

The plaza at Villa de Leiva

I wanted to take Anna on a hike up to an overlook of the entire town.  On our way, we saw that there were dark, ominous clouds in the sky threatening to pour rain down on us.  We decided to not continue with the hike, based on local advice that it probably was going to rain.  So we walked back to the center of town.
The cool thing about canceling the hike was that we had the opportunity to listen to a concert performed by a Venezuelan orchestra.  They played marvelously!  The rain never came, even though we could see the rain falling very close to where we were sitting.  That made for a very enjoyable evening.

The Venezuelan orchestra

The following day we went on our hike.  The trail was technically closed for conservation reasons, but we didn’t know that until after we had already hiked.  The trail hadn’t been used all year long and was covered in brush.  Our refusal to quit pushed us to wade through the brush and explore areas that weren’t even part of the trail.  In essence, we even lost the trail until we decided to backtrack.  Only then did we find the proper trail and made our way to the scenic overlook.  There, I tried to fly the kite that I had bought for my friend’s 5-year old son in Aguachica, but there wasn’t much wind.  It was still fun regardless.
Anna striking a pose next to a waterfall on the trail to the scenic outlook

Anna striking a pose next to a waterfall on the trail to the scenic outlook

Overlooking Villa de Leiva

After our hike, Anna and I met up with Yolima, a friend of mine from last year.  We had lunch and then bought 80 pieces of besitos de novia from her mother’s bakery as gifts for my friends in Aguachica.

Yolima and a whole lot of besitos de novia!

Mmmm... delicious besitos de novia!

After visiting with Yolima, Anna and I took a few more pictures and then hopped on a bus to take us to San Gil.  (It was actually a really long, wayward journey through the night, but we made it.)

The church at Villa de Leiva

Touring Bogota – Aug. 27, 2011

Every time that I’d been to Bogota, I was in transit to another part of the country.  I’d never actually done any tourist activities there.  On Aug. 25th, I made my way back to Bogota on another 10+ hour bus ride from Aguachica to pick up Anna , who had been a friend of mine since Peace Corps Zambia.  Having her around was a great reason to finally see the tourist sites in Bogota.  Truth be told, by this time I really wasn’t interested to do anymore touring because I was perfectly content visiting with my Colombian friends with Aguachica.  I could’ve remained there indefinitely.
My friends in Bogota, Nancy and Ernesto, graciously let us stay at their place.  Nancy was worried that maybe we wouldn’t be comfortable sleeping on the floor at her place, but we were perfectly fine with it.  I was really excited that we were able to stay with them because I wanted Anna to experience the warmth hospitality that Colombia is so famous for.  Plus, Ernesto makes the best coffee (the secret ingredient is panela, or sugarcane) ever and Nancy makes really good hot chocolate!
After picking up Anna from the airport on the 26th, Nancy made huevos con maizorca and some freshly squeezed lulu juice for breakfast, as well as the hot chocolate that I love.  Afterwards, Anna and I made our way via bus to La Candelaria, the historic part of Bogota.  Our goals were to take the cable car up to Montserrat, a park on top of the ridge that overlooks Bogota, and then to walk around the main plaza.

From left to right: Nancy, Ernesto and Anna

Anna and I overlooking Bogota from the lofty heights of Montserrat.

Anna and I at La Catedral Primada in La Candelaria, Bogota.

The statue at the center of Plaza de Bolivar

After a long day of walking around the La Candelaria, Anna and I made our way back to Suba, the neighborhood where Nancy and Ernesto live.  Since I couldn’t bring Nancy and Ernesto the U.S., I thought I’d take them out to a dinner at a prominent American restaurant chain, T.G.I.Friday’s for a proper steak and, my favorite, buffalo wings.  I also invited my friend Daniela, a Colombian-American who I’d met last year, too.
The next day Anna and I were off to Villa de Leiva.  Anna was impressed with the spacious leg-room and comfort of the bus were on.  I had the same positive impression during my first time last year on the same bus to Villa de Leiva.

Buses in Colombia are more comfortable than planes. You also see more of the country, listen to local music and have the opportunity to meet locals.


Colombia – The only risk is wanting to stay!

Exactly one year ago I was traveling in Colombia for my first time.  I was trying to bum a ride from San Gil, Colombia to the Cartagena on the Carribean coast.  Some friends of mine put me in touch with a driver from the EcoPetrol company who was able to take me as far as his hometown in Aguachica.  From there, my plan was to hop on a bus for the rest of the journey.
The driver’s name was Anuar Rodriguez and I was grateful that he could take me as far as he did.  I got to ride shotgun in his company’s pick-up truck, which was great because I could wear a seatbelt, recline comfortably and sleep and we could stop whenever we wanted to take pictures as we drove through the scenic Chicamocha Canyon.  I felt at the top of my traveling game, doing and seeing things that normal tourists don’t do, as long I didn’t get kidnapped, robbed or murdered.

Me and Anuar

Along the way, Anuar stopped and bought hormigas culonas (roasted ants) to share with me.  He also bought me dinner.  When we arrived in Aguachica, he brought me to his mother-in-law’s house which sat at the corner of an intersection where people on scooters buzzed by and Colombian vallenato music played on loudspeakers at the groceries store across the intersection.
I was surrounded by his family and several friends.  There were a handful of waist-high 5 and 6-year old kids, a couple of 13-year old girls, and several adults.  With so many people gawking at me in a language I didn’t understand, I could have easily felt uncomfortable but I wasn’t.  It was really cool to see how this Colombian family interacted with each other and to try to pick up Spanish from them.  They bought me beers and one of the friends, a pediatrician named Saul, took me for a ride in his air-conditioned car to tour Aguachica.

From left to right, Anuar, Me, Dr. Saul, Dionover, and one of the guys from the auto shop next door

More of the family. What this picture doesn't capture is the rest of the large circle of people that surrounded me.

Anuar put me up in a hotel for the night.  The next day, I met so many people as Anuar’s wife, Marina, drove me to all her brothers and sisters’ homes to visit them and their families.  I met everyone at the shoe store where she works in the town center.  Everyone I met was so warm and friendly.  I was the first American that they had ever personally seen and met.  They treated me like royalty- even better- these strangers treated me like family.

Me and Anuar's family (left to right): Einny, Anuar, Marina, Miguel Angel

So I left for Cartagena the next day.  It was hot as hell and I hated it.  I took pictures of the city and actually cut my trip short to revisit Anuar and his family in Aguachica.  I felt that I’d make more progress on my goals of learning Spanish and getting some cultural interaction by hanging out with them instead of sitting on a beach by myself.  I went back to Aguachica and got exactly that.  The added bonus was that I got to celebrate one of the girl’s 15th birthday, or quinceanera, which is a pretty big deal in Latin culture.

Me and the birthday girl, Yessica

I spent an extra day or two in Aguachica before making my way back to Bogota and my flight back to the USA, but my stay there left an overwhelmingly positive impression upon me.  I had promised myself and my friends that I would one day return to Colombia.  And ever since I had left Colombia in August 2010,  I had been dwelling obsessively on how I might one day return.
Fast forward to two weeks ago.  I had flown to Bogota from Lima, spent the night with my dear friends, Nancy and Earnesto, and then hopped on a bus for 15-hours back to Aguachica.  Of course, I was greeted with the same warmth and hospitality as I experienced last year by Anuar and his entire family.  A year had passed since we last met and we hadn’t lost step with one another.
Some of the highlights of my 3rd trip to Aguachica include:

  • discovering the local pool, which is great for keeping cool during the sweltering heat of the afternoon
  • celebrating Katty and Dionover’s birthdays two days in a row
  • eating delicious food and drinking fresh lemonade.  I hadn’t had a real home-cooked meal in nearly four months!
  • spending time with the family and all their friends, about 40 people total.  Thankfully, I’m great with remembering names.
  • a day trip to Ocana, a city in the mountains with a much cooler climate
  • being constantly immersed in Spanish

Delicious lemonade made with panela (sugarcane)!

I ended up spending about a week and a half with Anuar and his family.  I had planned to leave sooner to visit friends in San Gil, but I ended up staying a little longer just because I like these people so much.  What finally made me leave Aguachica was the fact that I had to pick up my friend, Anna S., at the airport in Bogota so we could travel the rest of Colombia and Ecuador together.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate hot weather.  It’s also very expensive to travel.  It’s usually prudent to not visit the same country more than once.  Having said that, I’m willing to suffer the heat and spend a small fortune to visit my friends in Colombia because it’s worth it.  If I could choose between seeing the 7 wonders of the world and making meaningful relationships with people, I’d choose the latter.
At this point, there’s not much more that I’m excited to see in the world.  I’ll still travel out of principle and to keep gaining life experience.  But I’ve decided that I will continue to regularly visit Colombia for the next few years until my life becomes so complicated that I can no longer do so.
I feel at home here.

Hanging out in Aguachica

Going out for lunch in Ocana

Alex and his beautiful 7-month old daughter Isabella