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Tales from a Rolling Stone

A Jungle Book Thanksgiving

COLOMBIA | Friday, 21 November 2008 | Views [686]

Well, after spending two very laid back weeks poolside by the sand dunes in Huacachina and at the Women´s Pro Surf World Tour at Mancora Beach with my friends Evan and Shane, I finally made it into Ecuador.  To be honest, I didn´t expect much.  I´d heard more than once that it had what other countries had, but not as good.  Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when it ended up being one of my favorite countries. 

My first stop was Vilcabamba, also known as the Valley of Longevity because the inhabitants are known to live long past the age of 100.  Wikipedia says that "the reasons for this claimed longevity are not very clear. French studies have shown that the diet and lifestyle of the inhabitants may be a factor. Some claim that the inhabitants have a tendency to exaggerate their age, and this is difficult to verify because of the lack of a proper birth certificates".  But I think we may be able to attribute it to the strange rituals they´re known for.  For example, in Vilcabamba you can:

...have coffee water pumped through your insides--purging you of impurities.
...sweat out the fear within, while banging a drum. 
...let the vibrations of a didgerido run all over you-- healing the body entire.
...visit a shaman (or sha-person, I´m told) who can guide you through the dark places of your mind using only mild hallucinogenic drugs. The shamans encourage you to use plant medicines like, peyote, san pedro and ayuhasca to explore your sorted past or current state of fear.  "You can't spend forever running from your shadow" they say.

Another interesting thing about Vilcabambans is their fascination with UFO's.

Although I borrowed the last narrative from another traveler´s blog because she articulated it way better than I ever could have, that really is Vilcabamba in a nutshell.  Kind of, well, nuts.  For example, while I didn´t witness all of the aforementioned activities personally, I did see someone drinking some kind of alcohol with a dead snake in it to make them five years younger, however.  Go figure that´s the place where I met the 82 year old woman from Portland who grew up about three blocks from the house I grew up in in Portland. 

From Vilcabamba I moved northbound to Cuenca, a charming town reminiscent of a Swiss village plopped smack dab in the center of South America.  Easily one of my favorite cities, and although I only had two days there, had some good fun with a few Peace Corps volunteers on a much needed vacation.

On a bit of a time crunch, I moved north to Baños, (and for all of you Spanish speakers, yes, that is the name of the town).  I`d planned on taking the 10pm bus from Cuenca to arrive in Ambato at 5am, where I`d be just in time to catch the first 1 hour bus to Baños.  Unfortunatley, I`d managed to pick the quickest bus driver on the whole continent and arrived to town at 3:30am.  Figuring I could just take a little nap at the terminal until it was time to catch my next bus, I was not pleased to find that the terminal was closed and there was not an open hostel in sight.  Looking somewhat lost in the middle of the Ambato street, a friendly taxista finally pulled up and asked where I was headed.  Telling him where, he said he`d take me to a safe place where I could wait for the bus.  Well, unfortunately for me, this ``safe place`` happened to be the sidewalk outside of a gas station.  Sitting outside of a bus station on a deserted street at 4am for two hours?  I didn´t think so.  Luckily, the taxista understood my concerns and found the bus that would be going to Baños a few hours later with a sleeping driver inside.  Deciding it was safer to be in the bus with the driver than out on the street with my bags, I hopped on and caught a few extra hours of Z`s before heading to my next destination.

Now, a word on Ecuadorian scenery.  It is absolutly stunning - just green rolling hills everywhere you look.  Probably the first place I`d been where I actually wanted to take day buses to see the view.

In any case, I arrived in Baños bright and early to find the town known for its famous hot springs nestled in a valley and surrounded by breathtaking green hills. A perfect place to relax for a few days.

After taking a stunning bike ride through the grooves and curves of the hills, I decided the hot springs would be a nice way to wind down, and there I met William, an Ecuadorian who was not about to let me leave town that night as I`d planned.  Although I stuck to my guns for a good hour of back-and-forth, he finally convinced me with the prospect of spending a few hours riding through the hills on the back of a motorcycle before going out for salsa and merenge.  Having spent most of my time with gringos until this point, I decided it didn´t make sense for me to be in Latin America if I was going to be suspect of every native I saw, and since he seemed to be a genuine guy that was friends with everyone in town, I decided to throw caution to the wind and spend an extra evening with my new Ecuadorian friend.  It was a great time.

My final stop in Ecuador was Quito, the capital and UN World Heritage Site, and for good reason.  Although the new part of town is nothing special and known to be quite dangerous, the old part was absolutely gorgeous, with a gothic looking church peaking up through the clouds to complete the scenery.  I hadn´t sat down for more than five minutes at my hostel, when I mentioned my plans to go to Colombia and a girl whose name I didn´t even know invited me to join her and the guy she was traveling with.  Having spent the last 10 days traveling solo, I decided it`d be fun to be on the road with people again, so after checking out the Equator the following day, hopped on a bus with this girl from Atlanta  (actually the second person from Atlanata I`d traveled with), and her Danish beau who I knew had to be a good guy since he sported a worn Red Sox hat.

To our disappointment, Colombia did not give us the warm welcome we were hoping for.  Actually, it was rather rainy and remained that way for my first 10 days. 

After hitting up the white college town of Popayán and heading to St. Agustin for a visit with the local Shaman, the three of us soon moved north to Bogotá - the huge very modern metropolitan capital -  and then to Medellin, the one time home of the infamous Escobar and hub of the Colombian drug trade.  Although Medellin seemed to be quite a cool town with a very happening nightlife (most notably Mangos, where the waitstaff is made up of dancing midgits), the rain pushed me on to the Caribbean coast, so northbound I went.

Naturally I arrived and the normally sunny fishing village of Taganga was getting flooded by downpours, so after spending a few days learning how to scuba dive I decided that if I was going to be wet, I may as well be muddy too and headed off on a six day trek to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City).  Our group was 12 - nine guys and three girls and led by Edwin Rey, a hilarious Colombian who was tied to a bed in 2003 while eight tourists were kidnapped by guerrillas on the same route I was taking.  It was a crazy story and wildly entertaining, but luckily the guerrillas had since vacated due to the new government and large military presence, so I was safe.  Sadly I was not safe from the mosquitoes which I swear wrote the book on natural selection, because just as soon as I´d sweat my bug spray off they´d head straight to my calves.  (I wonder how long it took them to realize they´d live longer if they bit where we couldn´t see them...???) 

In any case, despite the dozens of bites, we had a great however tough trek, making the trip five days instead of six.  Lots of mud and even more rain, and after crossing our first river in a ¨flying car,¨as Edwin told us, we proceeded to cross the rest by wading sometimes chest deep in water.  Of course this felt great, as we were all covered in mud up to our knees.

All in all it was good fun, but I think we were all thankful we´d finished a day early.  Being in South America, however, the adventure did not end there.  Not only was it pouring once we got to our school bus looking vehicle without windows (translation: I spent the two hour ride back getting soaked), Edwin must have felt like he did an awfully good job because he kept having the driver stop so he could yell at the store owners to bring beer to the bus.  He was sufficiently pissed by the time we got back to town.

And that brings me to now.  After finally washing my nearly moldy clothes from the jungle, I get my scuba certification tomorrow and spend my last few days in Colombia before booking it through Panama and Costa Rica for my December 21st flight out. 

Until then, I´ll do my best to write more frequently.  Ciao ciao :)

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