After spending almost all of this trip in the mountains, we decided to head for the coast for the last few weeks. Colombia borders both the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean, and has a diverse array of beach towns to choose from. Our goal was to see the Caribbean side, avoid complicated travel plans (no charter planes to islands or 6 hr bus rides), be able to swim AND hike, and hopefully, not be surrounded by hoards of tourists. No problemo booking this last minute during high travel season.
Santa Marta seemed like a good place to start. The town is on the coast with a gritty, dirty beach, and muggy overheated streets, but it is also the gateway to Tayrona National Park and the Lost City trek. Favorite Colombian islands and peninsulas didn’t seem far away. We booked a gem of a hotel to pause and regroup before setting off to a beach paradise.
Since we had an afternoon free, we visited Santa Marta’s gold museum- which was fascinating – precolombina pottery, gold and tools. Many of the golden articles were fashioned into strange animal/man creatures. Bats were prominently featured and one headdress had 5 men crouching on winged bats – likely priests on their flights to ecstasy (or at least that is what the placard said). The museum was rounded out with a little exhibit about Simon Bolivar who died in Santa Marta after leading most of South America in its fight for freedom from Spain. (pictures not allowed in museums:()
The beach paradise we sought came at a cost. Wachakyta (wa-cha-kee-ta) was nestled in Tayrona park, but the only way in was by a speed boat, jumping from wave to wave for 1 1/2 hours in the open ocean. I don’t have pictures because we were drenched coming and going and I needed all my hands and feet to keep myself in the boat. Pre board:
We were lucky to have one of only 3 cabins on the beach. The owner cautioned us that we are living in wild country and the animals were here first. Translation- “a bat lives in a niche in the ceiling and will poop everywhere and there are rats, spiders, and large cockroaches roaming around.” The bit about “living in nature” and “animal rights” must be better for business.
This all seemed like a small price to pay for a private beach, swimmable seas (rare in Tayrona), a little reef to snorkel around gorgeous sunsets and gorgeous new Dutch friends:)
Aaron and I love small towns. We love their unique personalities and the ability to feel like we know a few faces and where we are going within a few days. In new countries, we feel like we get a better sense of the traditional culture in more rural areas, too.
Jericó is about 4 hours from Medellin, up in the hills and surrounded by lush jungle forests. Like most South American towns, the town surrounds a central plaza with a handful of gorgeous churches and charming cobblestone streets. Jericó also boasts a riot of colorful homes with wild balconies and doors trimmed out.
We were happy wandering around up the streets, hiring some horses for a ride through a cloud forest, finding a river and hiking up to the Virgin de la peña or up to Cristo de Rez, or up up up. Everything was uphill both ways. Side note – we had a family photo shoot at Cristo de Rez due to an irresistible and extremely energetic budding tour guide. You will see him in this family photo.
Most restaurants here serve only Colombian food (read rice, French fries, and some sort of meat) but what they lack in variety and spice, they make up for in beverages. Fruit juices from fruits we’ve never heard of (Lulu?) and coffee granitas that made me swoon. Cardamom is prolific here and this dear lady makes and sells little chocolate bars with cardamom. (She is single and looking for a “special, judicious and entrepreneurial friend” if anyone out there has matchmaking skills)
Before we indulged in cardamomo chocolate or granitas, we tried to do a look-out hike to earn the calories and the Cerró des Nubes was our favorite. Thanks for the hospitality, Jericó. Next time, Aaron will bring his own mountain bike and I’ll find my way to the coffee place every day!!!
Our first stop in Colombia was the City of Eternal Spring – Medellín. It is modern and slick, with high rises, a metro and outdoor escalators for the steep hillsides. It has the lush, jungle-y flowers and plants of Hawaii with the weather of San Diego. You can find avenues that close for the weekend for joggers and dog walkers and neighborhoods that devote themselves to hip hop culture.
We were fortunate enough to have 4 nights here in the upscale neighborhood of Poblado-a little taste of luxury (saunas and pools with city views) while we dipped a toe into all the city had to offer. Serendipity connected us with friends from Yakima and new friends from an online group that happened to be in Medellín at the same time.
We spent our first day in Parque Explora – a massive science center. We spent a whole day here and didn’t finish all the exhibits. Our favorite section dealt with our minds – the ways we process information, fill in gaps, and remember. We also loved the eels!:)
Another day was spent exploring Communa 13. After some amazing fruit cups, we took a tour and learned that a this particular neighborhood had a reputation for extreme violence and paramilitary presence prior to a major governmental operation in the 90’s. This artistic neighborhood is a hotspot for tourists and is known for colorful murals and hip hop culture.
Beatrice Anderson has been studying Peruvian wildlife for 2 weeks and has considerable time in the field. We turn to her expertise as we visit Cruz del Condor.
Erin: Where do you find Condors?
Ms. Anderson: We found them at this place where there were bees that I was scared of and they lived in caves and it was like Coco [sic] canyon or something. They live like in cliffs, like if they find a hole in them.
Erin: What do they eat?
Ms. Anderson: Dead stuff
Erin: Do they have relatives?
Ms. Anderson: Turkey vultures or vultures
Erin: How big are they?
Ms. Anderson: “Condors? They are very big. I kinda feel like their wings are like 5 feet almost and their body all together is like 7 feet or 6 feet. Their beaks are also pretty big.
(Fact checkers have found that Ms. Anderson grossly underestimated their size. Wikipedia clocks their wing span at 9-10ft, second to the albatross as the largest land bird)
What did you think when you first saw them?
Ms. Anderson: I thought they were cool and interesting. It was cool when they flew closer to us-like 10 or something feet away. (Accurate.)
We also saw on one part of the trip, we saw 2 babies- we thought they were babies- and a mom that plopped down and got some dead stuff- with their beak probably- and fed it to their babies.
When Aaron goes on a day long bike ride, our family is left without their chief navigator and communications director. I stepped in as a substitute with a goal of “finding the river.” The kids put their absolute faith in me and armed with a wikiloc map and sunscreen we ventured out. A band of pueblo dogs soon followed us (guardian angels?) and picked snarly fights with dogs along the way. Jericó is perched on a mountain side, so the path to the river was down a steep path (and the town was back up up up). Wrong turns down the hill are discouraged. We met a loquacious man named Carlos who miraculously understood my request for directions in Spanish and gave us a long winded story about how to get there – “something something ‘down, down, down’ something something ‘swimming’ something something ‘rocks big as cars’ something something ‘?dangerous?’ or ‘sunscreen?’ ” Not sure.
We passed coffee plantations and banana trees reaching over the edge, pastures with cows, Saint Laura shrines and switchbacks. Just a quick scramble down the bank, and… we found it!!! Rio Pierdras!
The Colca Canyon is about 4-5hrs from Arequipa and the 2nd deepest canyon in the world at 11,488 ft deep (more than 2x deeper than the Grand Canyon).
From Arequipa, you travel across an “altiplano” – a desert plane at 14-15,000ft-so high and so cold the water falls are “ice falls.”
The horizon stretches flat broken by small bits of scrub, rocks and occasional mountain bogs called ” bufadales.” The altiplano is framed by (active) giant volcanos with Quechuan names like Waulka Waulka and Picchu Picchu (if it sounds great once, why not repeat it?).
We were on the lookout for the timid vincuña. Vicuñas are the wild cousins of the alpaca, rare and prized for their luxurious wool, soft as butter and prohibitively expensive. (To shear the vicuñas, herdsmen have to catch them, hold them down, and shear within 3 minutes as they are so emotionally frail that they will die of a heart attack if stressed for too long *awaiting fact check*)
On our way to the Colca, we couldn’t pass up a roadside alpaca party. These friendly camels of the Andes were surprisingly tolerant of all the attention from passing tourists.Near our lodging, was a thermal vent that creates a geyser when ice melt runs over the top. Unlike Yellowstone, there are no roped off areas, no signs of caution and no other tourists..
While we are on the subject of signage, we almost missed these caves as the turn off is so poorly marked you really need a guide that knows where they are. Like many small landmarks and historical sites in Peru you won’t find much information to guide you through. I can’t tell you the age or people group who might have left these petroglyphs behind. The alpaca, condor and human shape are so graceful.
Simon has been asking me for a while when we can climb a big mountain together. So I said sure and we decided to give 19,000 ft Mt Misti that towers over Arequipa, Peru a try. Mt Climbing is one of my favorite things to do and having grown up in Arequipa, Misti had been a dream of mine to climb some day. And now I had the opportunity to take my son with me!
We went to 2 Peruvian guide shops in downtown Arequipa to get more info on the climb. We were told that it was an 8.000 foot ascent, with an overnight base camp. We didn’t have any climbing gear with us so the guide company said they would provide it. It is between 15-35 degrees Fahrenheit up the mountain and so some serious gear is needed. The first guide company I checked assured me that they would provide us with boots. When I asked to see them they brought out a pair of worn snowboard boots… hmmm, that’s a lot of walking on trails and scree to do in snowboard boots I thought.
The next guide company seemed much more prepared, with various mountaineering boots to try on, gear that seemed suitable to the conditions we’d be facing. The main items we needed to focus on were water (no water sources on the mountain) and snackfood.
They said we needed 5 liters of water each, but I drink a lot and so I took 8 and simon 5 liters. Our packs were kind of heavy.
When our Peurvian guide Juan first saw Simon I believe he wondered how he would fare with this climb. It turns out Juan has been guiding on Misti and Chachani, the 2 major mountains outside Arequipa for the last 15 years, he’s kind of seen it all. We packed into a jeep with a solo French climber and a couple from Lima, Peru and headed out towards the mountain. It took a couple of bumpy, dusty hours to get us to the end of the road at around 11,000 feet. We said goodbye to the jeep driver and we put on our packs and started up the trail. Simon was continuously asking questions in Spanish to our guide Juan. Within a mile of so of the start of our climb toward base camp, Juan said “Simon es muy fuerte.” He felt the weight of Simon’s pack, carrying 5 L of water and grinned. The couple from Lima, Peru struggled to keep up with us and he made a point saying that the 13 year old kid from the US was carrying as much as they were…
We set up basecamp at 14,500 feet. Our guide and another guide that were up there used a full size gas tank that they had hauled up the mountain to cook soup, a main dish with chicken and rice for us and then tea afterward. I’m used to the freeze-dried stuff when backpacking from the US and this meal was way better.
As the sun set we could see lights of Arequipa, city of over 1 million people stretched out below us. It also became very cold as the sun set and we promptly got in our tents and sleeping bags and said goodnight. We had slight headaches from the altitude and both took some ibuprofen before going to bed. It’s hard to sleep at high elevation so we didn’t sleep much that night. Plus the cold kept creeping in despite our sleeping bags and jackets and stocking caps…
We woke around 1am for an alpine start. After a quick drink of some coca leaf tea and a Starbucks Via I brought with me and a few bites of a granola bar we were off for the summit. The couple from Lima decided they wanted to give the summit a try even though our guide told them the night before that based on how they did climbing to base camp they were unlikely to make it. We climbed for several hours often waiting for the couple to catch up to us. Simon was eager and strong as he climbed higher and higher. Around 16000 feet, Simon and I waited in a cave that protected us from the wind while our guide went down to find the rest of group trailing. When they reached the cave, he asked them to stay in the cave till sunrise and till he returned from summiting with Simon and I.
Under the glow of city lights and stars above we continued to climb… I was aided by Midnight and Sky full of Stars from Coldplay which seemed fitting. And I kept thanking God for this opportunity to be climbing Misti with my son!
Despite it’s high elevation, Misti is located in the Atacama desert – the driest desert in the world and therefore has very little snow and ice except for the very top. Around 17,500 feet we had a stretch of ice to cross (nieves penitentes) actually, which are sharp, hard cup formation from freezing and thawing at high elevations. Simon was feeling pretty exhausted but had enough energy to put on crampons and tether himself to our guide with the rope. We slowly traversed the icy slope, knowing that a fall on the ice would mean a serious beating. After the traverse we arrived at the crater! Yeah!
There was another area across the crater with a cross that was the highest point but our guide said it would take another hour or more to get to and Simon was laying supine at the crater and appeared tired. I too was tired. We focused on our breathing as the air was very thin. And we decided to head down after snapping some victory pictures, wanting to save some energy for the long decent.
After carefully going back down the icy snow field with our crampons, we removed them and headed towards the long sandy slope. We were able to basically jump and ski down the long slope almost all the way to basecamp! It took us 7 hours going up to reach the crater that morning and 1 hour going down to our basecamp. Also – as we descended, Simon seemed to have more and more energy once again! It had been the altitude sapping our strength.
We took a short rest back at camp, donating about 2 liters of extra water we had carried up and wearily packed up our tents, sleeping bags and everything else to head down to the trailhead.
The couple from Lima were back at camp having not waited for our guide to return from the summit and Juan had a few choice words regarding their decision.
We arrived back at the car around 2pm exhausted. Out guide said he had never seen a 13 year old make it to the crater before, and reiterated that Simon was “muy fuerte.”
It is an old convent that dates back to the 1579s and was cloistered or almost completely isolated from secular life (including “lazy Susans” that helped sisters exchange gifts and goods without visual contact). In the 1960s, earthquakes forced the sisters to move out of these residences and the convent was restored and opened to the public.
Cool fact: Paul Gaugin’s mother sought refuge here during a period of conflict with Chile.
Thousands of picturesque doorways and arches, flower laden walks and old kitchens make it a beautiful haven from the hectic congestion of the city.
If we listened very very carefully, we could hear choral voices practicing or worshiping. We spent most of our time wondering where the beautiful music was coming from until the very end – a recoding on a video sharing the story of Saint Ana and her miracles. George had a little miracle of his own when he stepped into a sun beam.
As cities go, Arequipa is a stunner. Everyone knows her as the white city because of the white volcanic stone used in construction.
The white walls and glowing churches set off bright bougainvillea and geraniums that seem to grow everywhere. The central plaza is set off by a grand basilica that has been rebuilt several times due to earthquakes.
It has a massive organ from Belgium (and we were lucky enough to hear a mini concert)
a bishop’s stand that sits atop a withering demon
and a museum with religious artifacts built with gold, silver and precious stones (pictures are not allowed). The most impressive is a silver pelican that stands about 2-3ft high. She is studded with garnets and sapphires and nestles two babies below. Because she lack food for her babies, she has picked her breast and offers her blood to save them. A catholic legend that recalls Christ’s sacrifice for us.
A tour is worth every minute-and the view from the roof and belfry were amazing.
The children were more impressed with the marble patio than anything inside the church.
The plaza is reserved as a pedestrian area and allows peddlers to earn money by throwing baby animals at photo-snapping tourists, people to fundraise for dubious children’s homes, children to chase pigeons, and tourists to wander and marvel at the basilica without having to watch out for traffic.
Aaron is fond of starting conversations with taxi drivers on how much Arequipa has changed in 10 years… more traffic, Starbucks, malls, Uber, and tourists. Luckily, the amazing food remains the same. We are happy to be eating ceviche, roccoto relleno and lomo saltado and washing it down with a pisco sour.
1. When given a choice for a mototaxi vs. hiking the first 2 miles uphill. Choose a mototaxi
2. Remember you are in the Andes and the Peruvians don’t care if the route is straight. Up. The. Hill.
2. When you are thirsty after climbing uphill for 20 miles, pretend you are on the Titanic
4. If an Ocean scene seems far fetched, pretend you are a chachapoyan – living at 14,000 feet on a remote mountain top because other tribes are trying to kill you and this is your only hope for survival. Don’t forget to decorate your hut with pretty graphics, reminiscent of jaguar eyes.
5. Rely on each other for support.
6. Remember Aaron’s number 1 encourager, “it’s just up and over this next section.”