Monday, May 28, 2012

On to Ecuador, a quick stop in Peru, and the end of an amazing adventure.

After a fun and relaxing stay in Salento, Hannah and I packed up and got on a bus to the Ecuadorian border.

After taking our touristy border picture and going through immigration (successfully), we found our way to the bus stop.  Our plan was to stop in a little town called Otavalo before continuing on to Quito.  Otavalo is a well-known stop on the backpacker trail for its giant open air market that runs week-long.  Since my trip was coming to a close in a week and I still needed to get some gifts for family and friends back home, Otavalo was an ideal place to visit.  We checked into a nice, very well maintained hostel called Rincón del Viajero, put our bags down and went to the market.  We walked around for an hour or so getting gifts and admiring the sea of bright colors surrounding us.

Hostel Rincón del Viajero

El Mercado

After we were done shopping, we went to the second highlight mentioned in the Lonely Planet: the Shanandoa Pie Shop.  While I had tried almost every dessert imaginable during the previous almost 3 months, pie was not on that list so I was excited to say the least.  We walked into the shop and were greeted by a very friendly, and very talkative, lady who turned out to be the store owner.  Hannah and I each ordered our own giant slices of pie for a dollar and some change and devoured them.  The Lonely Planet didn't lie - that pie was damn good.  The owner was interested to know how we found out about her shop so we told her that it was a highlight in our backpacker travel guide.  Apparently she had been unaware that her little shop had made it into the pages of one of the best known traveling books in the world, so she was pretty enthusiastic when we told her.  Unfortunately we had both left our books back at the hostel, so we promised her we'd come back the next day to show her.  And we did just that.  She had her assistant go run to make a copy of the page so she could post it in the store window.  To thank us, she offered both of us another slice of pie - for free!  I'm pretty sure we had just finished a giant lunch right before then, but turning down free pie was simply not an option for me, especially considering how delicious it was.  So we both ate our second giant slices of pie within a 24 hour period, thanked our new friend, and left the shop feeling slightly heavier than we had five minutes before. 

The market and pie were pretty much it in the way of tourist attractions, so while we both enjoyed the town and could have stayed another day, we packed up and got on a bus to Quito.  Hannah was meeting a friend there and I had only a few more days left before my flight home, so we didn't want to waste any time.  The bus we were on had no good place so put luggage so we set our backpacks down on a little platform at the front of the bus between the driver and the first row of seats.  They kept falling off as we went around turns so after a while we just let them sit on the floor, which was fine until the bus filled up and people needed that floor space to sit.  At that point we had to put our bags back up on the platform, but of course they kept sliding into a group of passengers growing increasingly annoyed, so I was forced to find a solution.  Luckily someone had a piece of rope, so I managed (with some difficulty due to a combination of the tight curves we were whipping around, the rope being too short, and me being too short) to tie our bags to an overhead support bar.  It sure wasn't pretty, but it did the trick.  Hannah's comment: "I'm glad I'm traveling with an engineer!"  Because of course it takes an engineer to tie a knot.

We arrived at the main bus station in Quito several hours later, where Hannah and I said our goodbyes as she was getting on a separate bus to go meet her friend.  I got on a bus going to the Centro Histórico, (the old/historic part of the city) to find a hostel.  I ended up finding a hostel called the Secret Garden that was located at the top of a tall, narrow building, at the top of which was a terrace with a fantastic view of the city.  No sooner than I had put my bags down I glanced over to see Aaron, the guy I had met in Nicaragua and went volcano boarding with.  Apparently he had been just one stop ahead of me on the exact same path since then, since I had an extended stay in Nicaragua living with Ileana and Nino.  Later that evening I ran into a German guy I had met at the hostel in Medellin.  While it wasn't completely surprising, it was nice to see some familiar faces.

I spent the first day in Quito exploring on my own in the usual way: walk around for an hour, eat, walk around some more, eat, check out a museum, and find a place to get a cold domestically brewed beer (always an integral part of the cultural experience) before heading back to the hostel to shower and eat yet again.  The second day a friend from the hostel I'd met and I went to get a birds eye view of the city by climbing the tower of one of Quito's many cathedrals.  To the west of the city was an amazing view of the Andes mountains off in the distance.     

If I'd had more time, I would have attempted to hike to the top of Volcán Cotopaxi, one of the world's tallest active volcanoes at 19,300 feet, with some people I met at the hostel who had arranged a guided trip.  I guess it will have to wait until next time.

That afternoon, I hopped on the city metro with a couple guys from the hostel and headed towards one of the big tourist destinations around Quito: La Mitad del Mundo, or in English, the Middle of the Earth. The name "Ecuador" literally means "Equator" because the 00° 00' 00" latitude line runs about 22km north of Quito. We came to find out that there are actually two areas that claim to be the true 00° 00" 00" (of course there are infinitely many areas along the true equator since it is a line that runs around the globe) - one is a giant monument with a globe on top, the other is a museum with an exhibit on the indigenous people of the region and another exhibit on myths about the equator (of course they would argue these myths to be solid facts). Apparently the monument doesn't lie exactly on the equator according to modern GPS technology, while the museum is actually on the true equator (we did verify this with a GPS capable satellite phone).  Just to be sure, we visited both sites.

First site: the monument

Second site: the museum
Standing in both the southern and northern hemispheres at the same time

The museum was interesting as we listened to our tour guide rattle off all these "facts" about the equator, some of which were followed by demonstrations.  I don't remember the exact details of these "facts" but it had to do with the earth's magnetic field being different at the equator making balancing on the equator more difficult.  To reinforce that theory, our tour guide told us that if we closed our eyes and tried to walk a straight line along the exact equator (basically stay on the red line) it would be more difficult than doing so on either side of it.  I failed pretty bad at balancing on the line, and then I failed pretty much just as badly trying to do it 10 feet south of the line, so I'm calling B.S. on that one.  

Similar to balancing on the line, our guide has us attempt to balance an egg on the flat side of a nail.  After we all watched her do it in less than 10 seconds we thought no problem, but it didn't turn out to be so easy.  We all sat there for 10 minutes taking turns trying to balance the egg, none with any luck.  I haven't tried to repeat the demonstration back here in the US, far from the equator, but I imagine it would be just as difficult as it was there.  So how did the tour guide do it?  My thought: when you do something one thousand times a day for one thousand days, you start to get pretty good at it. 

Another demonstration was designed to show us that water being poured down a sink will swirl in different directions depending on what side of the equator you're on.  The trick was pretty easy to spot but I didn't open my mouth so as to not burst bubbles of all the ooooh-ers and ahhhhh-ers in the group.  I won't give away her secret here either, so all you people reading this will have to go figure it out for yourselves.  Please let me know when you do and we'll compare answers. 

Once we'd had enough equator facts for one day, we headed back to Quito to eat dinner and to get ready for the evening.  The effects of the altitude of the city become much more apparent at night when the temperature dropped well into the "holy crap where's my jacket" range (Quito itself sits higher than 9,300 feet above sea level making it the highest capital city in the world). It was definitely a significant change coming from the beaches of Cartagena and Santa Marta two weeks before, and even from Medellin which sits at about 5,000 feet.  After dinner and a warm shower, I met some of the other hostel guests up on the terrace where the staff was holding weekly trivia.  We hung out for a couple rounds of trivia, and maybe a few more of beer, before heading out to go explore the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, part of the New Town where most of the nighttime activity is found.  It was much more touristy, but there was a wide variety of bars and nightclubs all with a great mix of locals and tourists.  We stayed out having a great time until the bars began to shut down on us, so we called it a night and got a cab back to the hostel.

The following day was the last full day of my adventure.  I spent it by taking a leisure walk through some of the parks and neighborhoods in the New Town, getting a last taste of the delicious Ecuadorian cuisine, and reflecting on the last 3 months.  It was hard to believe it had been three months, the trip had gone by so quickly.  One part of me wanted to stay and continue my adventures since I had originally hoped to see so much more, but another part of me was ready to call it quits and come back home.  Since I had booked my flight home two or three weeks earlier, I had actually begun to look forward to getting back to the States to see my family and friends.  While I have absolutely no regrets about my trip, it did reinforce a very important life lesson: the most outstanding memories a person will ever have come from the moments they share with friends and family.  I had tons of amazing experiences during those three months that I was able to share with people from all over the world, but already some of those memories are beginning to fade.  The experiences I will truly remember for the rest of my life will be the ones that I can reflect on with the people that were there in the moment.  And those are the people that I will still be friends with for years to come. 

Interestingly enough, the flight home I had booked actually flew me south from Quito to Lima, arriving at about 11am.  I then had a full day until my flight from Lima to Los Angeles at about 1am so I was able to leave the airport and get one last day of adventures in.  I was even able to check my bag before leaving the airport so I didn't have to carry it around all day.  I remember thinking "oh if the weather's nice maybe I'll be able to get to the beach" but what I had forgotten was that it was winter in South America and while I hadn't felt it while so close to the equator, Lima was definitely far south enough for it to be COLD.  I quickly realized after leaving the airport in shorts and a t-shirt that I wouldn't be spending any time at the beach that day.  I took a bus from the airport to Miraflores, one of the more upscale and touristy areas in the city, just to avoid running into a snafu getting back to the airport if I had gone elsewhere.  Immediately after getting off the bus, I spotted a more or less fancy looking restaurant and decided I was going to splurge on a nice lunch before going home.  I had delicious seafood platter, side salad, and dessert all for about $15, which was about 3 to 4 times what I had gotten used to spending in most of the countries I had previously visited, so I was eating like a king.

After lunch I got to see a recently discovered archeological called Huaca Pucllana, which is an adobe pyramid and fortress that was inhabited by the Limas thousands of years ago.  Oddly enough, it is located right in the middle of the city.  From what I remember, there was a dispute over ownership of the land on which it sits, so the Peruvian government wasn't able to start excavating it until several decades ago.  They are still only halfway done.  It was kind of weird to see ruins like that surrounded on all sides by houses, office buildings, and busy roads with cars zipping by.

This last picture shows the condition of the ruins upon being excavated (right) vs. after being restored.  The reason it has taken so long to restore the fortress is because they have only a few employees that are picking up and replacing every single stone to make it look as close to how it did 1500 years ago.  Pretty impressive.

The last stop of the trip was to El Parque de la Reserva, which just so happens to be the world's largest fountain park.  I went with Carlos, a Colombian guy (coincidentally also an engineer) I met on our tour of Huaca Pucllana.  It's exactly what it sounds like, a giant park filled with all kinds of jet-powered water fountains that spray the water in cool patterns.  At night, the fountains are illuminated by moving beams of light of all different colors that dance across the surface of the water forming different shapes and designs.  Honestly it was incredible.  I'll just stop writing so you can see what I'm talking about.

The best part was the lights show, where they actually choreographed the both the water jets and the light patterns to music, and then projected video onto a wall of water.  The pictures don't even do it justice, you just need to be there.  You can find some cool videos on YouTube though if you search "Parque de la Reserva Lima."

After the lights show, Carlos and I went on our separate ways.  I still had a good few hours before my flight so I did what I usually do when there's nothing else to do - go searching for food.  Since it was after 10pm, it turned out to be a little harder than expected.  I stopped at a bar/restaurant type place and asked if they had any cuy, which we know in English as guinea pig.  While these critters are considered pests, or pets at best in the US, they are actually a popular dish in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.  After learning that fun fact on the tour of the ruins, I was set on getting a taste before leaving.  The girl working there thought it was funny that some random gringo strolled in at 10:30 asking for cuy, but it ended up being a great segue into the long conversation that followed!  Unfortunately they didn't have any cuy so I eventually said my goodbyes so I could continue on my search.  I never ended up finding any cuy, but I did find a place where I was able to sit down and get a plate of chicken and I think also french fries.  I guess I was subconsciously transitioning back to an American diet.  

After my late night meal, I found the bus heading back to the airport and hopped on.  By 1am I was sitting on a plane, by 1:30 I was asleep, and the next thing I knew I was landing in Los Angeles.  I was still tired, but happy to see my mom waiting for me in baggage claim.  On top of that, I was excited to get in a comfortable car where I could safely put my backpack in the truck rather than resting it on my lap in order to make room for the other 10 people within a 3 foot radius.  On the way home, the same feeling I had when I came back from Spain set in - it was like I had been gone for the weekend.  But with three months worth of memories.  

As happy as I was to be home, looking back, I do wish I had been able to spend a little more time traveling.  Now that I'm living in a new city working a full time job, looking at these pictures is the closest I can get to having a similar experience.  I hope that somewhere down the road I'll have an opportunity to pick up where I left off and complete the trip I had originally planned.  Even more than that, I'd like to go back to visit the people that made the trip so memorable.  Egma, Agustin and kids Cindy, Frankie, and Osman (El Tizate, Guatemala); Ninoska, Ileana, Jenny, Jorge (Leon, Nicaragua); Kobi and Gabi Klaf and their three kids Dahnya, Orazi and Solai (La Fortuna, Costa Rica and Alto Boquete, Panama), diving friends from Utila - Felix, Ahlem (best dive buddy ever!), Javier (fantastic underwater videographer), and Maddie (best dive instructor!); and all my other amazing travel buddies: Ayelet, Tal, Joella and Gili (Panama City); Sammi, Mary and Eneko (Cartagena, Colombia); Marco (Medellin), Hannah (Medellin to Quito), and everyone else I didn't mention.  If any of you end up reading this, I want to say thanks for making this trip as awesome as it was; it would not have been the same without you guys.

Colombia: The Land of Mud Volcanos and Giant Palm Trees

So... here I am in Houston more than 9 months after the end of my Latin American journey.  It hasn't even a year, but my trip already seems like a lifetime ago.  Those of you that followed my blog during my travels may have noticed that I never finished it, and may still be wondering if I was abducted by a Colombian drug cartel or wound up being dinner for a hungry anaconda in the Darien jungle in Panama.  Fear not, I am alive and well back in the States, working a full time job in my new home... the Lone Star State.  Never thought I'd wind up in the South, but hey South is just relative - many of the people I met in those three months will never dream of being as far north as Texas.

During these last 9 months I've meant to finish this blog every weekend, but I got so caught up in the business of a full time working schedule and excitement of a new city that it never happened.  So this weekend, FINALLY, I have set aside some time to finish my blog and wrap up the last few weeks of my adventure.  So, let's turn the clock back 9 months and hope it all comes back... 

After a long 4 days of vomiting over the side of a boat traveling from Panama to Colombia, we finally made it to the historic Colombian port city of Cartagena.  While many people think immediately of drug cartels and Pablo Escobar when they hear about Colombia, this is in fact a total misconception.  It's quite similar to the reactions I get when I tell people I'm from Chicago - always the city of Al Capone (I do also get the Windy City a lot, which of course is true, although most people don't realize that nickname wasn't actually related to it literally being windy).  Colombia has actually transformed into a very safe, developed, and relatively wealthy Latin country.  I never once felt unsafe despite the warnings by the US Department of State.  Yes, if you walk around certain areas in big cities by yourself at 3am you put yourself at greater risk, but isn't that the case anywhere?  I think I would feel less safe walking around the south side of Chicago in broad daylight than I would in most Colombian cities in the middle of the night.  Traveling safely is all about being smart and avoiding sketchy situations (I learned my lesson in Nicaragua).  Anyway, it's funny to think about how our educations, the media, and our other experiences have shaped the way we think about other parts of the world.  It's hard to know exactly how a place really is until going to see it firsthand.

Colombia has been an entirely different experience than Central America and is making me wish I had another 3 months to explore South America!  I spent my first few days in Colombia in the colonial city of Cartagena after ending my 5 day voyage from Panama.  Cartagena, despite being hot and humid beyond belief, was easily one of my favorite historical cities, right up there with Antigua (Guatemala).  It's actually a huge city of almost a million people, but it is divided between the new part and the Old Town, which is where the city was originally founded during the time of the Spanish Conquest.  The Old Town is full of well-presevered, brightly colored shops and houses with balconies overlooking the streets.  It is surrounded by a big stone walls called Las Murallas that were built in the colonial period as a means of protection from the many pirates that tried to attack it.

Since I had gotten a bit too much sun on the boat (I am so much better now about wearing sunscreen after that experience), I stayed indoors the first couple days to give my skin some time to heal.  I guess I had forgotten how much stronger the sun is when you're basically at the equator.  I used my downtime to get some reading in, upload pictures, and catch up with family and friends on Skype.  My first Colombian highlight came on our third day there when Sammi and I went to Volcán de Lodo El Totumo.  It's not a typical volcano as one would think, but rather a 15 meter high mound full of thick, grey mud.  Apparently the mud is loaded with minerals and is great for your skin (not sure about the legitimacy of my sources but whatever I'm going to believe it anyway).  It was the first time I had ever heard of a mud volcano so I was compelled to check it out.  We arrived, stripped down into our bathing gear, and climbed the stairs which had been built on both sides of the "volcano."   Upon arriving at the top, we were confronted with a square shaped pool of thick grey mud enclosed by wooden walls (pretty sure the stairs and wood weren't a natural part of the volcano).  A nice guy at the top offered to hold onto our bags so we could both take a dip in the mud bath.  Sammi climbed in first, and within seconds had some guy, who we could only assume was an "employee" of the facilities, rubbing mud on her face and limbs and gently massaging it in.  We hadn't realized that massages were part of the package, but who's going to have a problem with getting a massage?  I stepped in next and another "employee" began giving me a similar mud massage.  I can't even describe the feeling of sitting in that mud bath; it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  The mud is so dense that it keeps you boyant enough to easily float on the surface.  If you shift yourself into a vertical position, you float at chest level.  But the weirdest part is that if you sit still, you won't move; you're kind of just stuck as if it was quicksand, but without the whole sinking part.    

After getting our mud massages (mine which included getting a stylish new mohawk) and letting the mud soak in for 15 minutes, we climbed out and headed down a dirt path to the nearby lagoon where we could wash off.  We had yet another surprise at this point - two Colombian women followed us as we waded into the water and basically told us they were going to wash us.  Again, we just went with the flow and figured it was all part of the mud volcano experience, so we just sat there while our respective wash ladies scrubbed us down.  I was actually quite impressed with how efficient she was, going so far as so scrub inside the crevices of my ears and behind them to ensure that we left the volcano as clean as we had arrived.  The real shocker came when she told me to take off my shorts.  "Come again?  You want me to do what?"  She laughed and said she was just going to clean them off for me.  Once again, I just shrugged my shoulders and did what I was told (don't worry, the water was cloudy so I wasn't completely exposed).  It was at that point, sitting there naked in the lagoon as this middle-aged Colombian woman scrubbed me down and washed off my shorts, that I thought about how the last time anyone had washed me down like that was my mother more than 20 years ago.  It was quite an interesting and odd realization, and I couldn't help but to feel a maternal connection to this lady who I had met no more than five minutes earlier.  As she finished cleansing my shorts of volcanic mud, I told her that I would always think of her as my Colombian mother.  She was appreciative, although I'm sure I'll just be forgotten among her thousands of other mud children around the globe.

After exploring Cartagena's Old Town and cleansing myself in the mud of Volcan El Totumo, it was time to move on.  The next stop was Taganga, a tiny, touristy beach town just outside of the much larger coastal city of Santa Marta.  While touristy, it's not just foreign tourists you find in Tanganga; on weekends it's a big spot for Colombians to take advantage of the beach and sun.  For three days we did exactly the same, and I managed to get in a couple dives on the side.  The diving wasn't as great as in Utila, but I still got to see some cool fish!

Besides beach and diving, one of the things we most looked forward to about Taganga was getting a delicious steak dinner.  Don't ask me why, but apparently you can get some damn good steaks in that little town.  It's not your typical backpacker meal, but we decided we could splurge just once.  It was totally worth it; the meal was the best I'd had in over a month.  And of course we couldn't just settle with the steaks, we had to top them off with an ice cream covered brownie for dessert.  Totally amazing.

Once I'd had my fill of beach, diving, and discos I packed up and took a night bus to Medellin, a city of about a million in the central region of Colombia, not far from Bogota.  At this point I would like to recommend to anyone planning on traveling on long distance buses to bring long underwear, wool socks, a winter coat, and a hat.  For some reason, these bus companies feel the need to blast air conditioning at full power, bringing the interior to a frosty 55 degrees if not less.  I'm a gringo used to Chicago winters and even I was uncomfortably cold; I can't imagine how the locals must feel.  Of course most of them come prepared with warm clothing and blankets.  My conclusion is that the bus companies must compete for delivering the highest number of hypothermic passengers to their destinations.  After 16 long hours, I got off the bus in Medellin and thawed out in the sun while waiting to catch a cab.  I split the cab fare with Al and Franco, two nice guys I had met on the bus from Australia and France.  We went to the Lonely Planet top pick and much talked about Casa de Kiwi in the Poblado district.  It was a really well kept and fun hostel.  After meeting some people in the hostel and talking to them about what there was to do in Medellin, I was convinced to stay through the weekend because Fridays and Saturdays are the nights when the city really livens up.  I arrived on Tuesday, so for the first couple days I explored the city, which was quite easy thanks to its brand new metro system.  I was even able to get in a much needed workout at the outdoor prison style exercise area down the street from the hostel.

I was completely impressed with Medellin; it was developed, clean (in most places), and the local people were really friendly.  Unlike in many other Latin countries, as a foreigner you get a lot of heads turning your way.  I think that Colombians still aren't very used to foreign tourists since it was so recently that the country became safe enough to be a tourist destination.  In general, it seemed like they were very welcoming towards foreigners and were eager to help us find our way around or give us advice on things to do/places to go.  

On Wednesday a group of us from the hostel went to see the France play Portugual at the fútbol (soccer) stadium.  It was fun, but since the fans weren't truly invested in either team, we didn't get to experience the same out-for-blood environment as would be present if a home team were playing.  It's true that the only thing that comes before Catholicism in many of these countries is soccer.  At least we were able to experience a mini-rivalry within our group, since our friend Marco was with us as well as two Portuguese guys from the other hostel.  Portugal ended up winning the match 2-0.  Sorry Marco, hope you've gotten over it.  


When Thursday rolled around I understood why everyone said to stay for the weekend.  Even though Thursday isn't really the weekend, we went out and had a wild night in the Poblado district.  It was probably the first place I had been to where it was common to see a solid mix of locals and tourists in a variety of bars.  It really shows how interested the Colombians are in being friendly towards us gringos!

On my last full day in Medellin, Marco and I went to do something I'd always wanted to do: paragliding.  There was a trusted (more or less) paragliding facility located up in the mountains on the outskirts of the city so we hopped on a bus and told the driver to take us to the paragliding place.  Medellin is a cool city in that is is essentially located in a valley with mountains surrounding it on almost all sides.  We rode the bus up a windy road for 45 minutes and yelled "Parada!" when we saw a big sign that said "PARAPENTE AQUI".

We hopped out, walked over to the shop, signed some papers (I don't read those anymore, they all say the same thing - if you die, it's not our fault blah blah blah).  We then walked out of the shop, up a lengthy flight of stairs on the mountainside up to a grassy area where there were tandem instructors waiting with equipment.

Within 5 minutes we had on helmets and harnesses and were ready to go.

Our instructors then hooked in behind us and said "When I say go, we're going to go run as fast as we can off the side of that cliff."  I had looked over the edge earlier to see a more or less straight plunge down about a thousand feet.  "Sounds good" I replied.  And that's exactly what we did - with the canopy dragging behind us we ran towards the edge until the ground disappeared beneath our feet and we were soaring in the air, not plunging down as you might expect, but rather rising in the warm updrafts which is what makes paragliding possible.  

For 20 minutes we soared 1500 feet over Medillin, entering and exiting the thermals so as to maintain a constant altitude.  It wasn't an adrenaline rush like skydiving, but rather a relaxing ride that provided an opportunity to take in the beautiful countryside and sprawling city below (of course we were still able to do some quick spins and other fun maneuvers at my request).  After 20 minutes we aimed back at the grassy area from which we'd taken off and came in for a smooth easy landing.  I landed first then got my camera out in time to snap a shot of Marco coming in:

After doing a repeat of Thursday night on Friday I was totally wiped out, so I decided I could miss out on Saturday evening and head to the more more quiet and relaxed town of Salento in Colombia's coffee region.  I went with a friend I had met at Casa de Kiwi named Hannah, from Colorado, since we had both planned on going to Salento and then to Ecuador.  We left Medellin too late to make it all the way to Salento the same day, so we spent a night in a less touristy town called Armenia.  We were tired and there is little to see there as a tourist, so we just checked into a hostel near the bus terminal and got to bed early.  I had a difficult night due to some stomach complications but I survived.  We arrived in Salento the next day, checked into a hostel, and went exploring.

I had to skip lunch since my stomach was still a little queasy but we still had a great day.  As we were walking around doing some gift shopping, we came across a lady making a very interesting gelato-like desert.  I didn't understand how or why she was doing it, but she was basically whipping it around in a circle in the air from one end while the other end was somehow staying fixed to a wooden fixture attached to a pole.  It was so thick that the whole clump stayed together while she was whipping it, but she was able to pour it into cups to serve to people by slowing down the whipping motion.  This picture can do a better job explaining it:

We walked down the main drag with all the shops towards a big flight of stairs.  We had no idea what was up there but we were intrigued and everyone else was walking up them so we followed.

There wasn't a whole lot at the top except for a little park and an amazing view of the countryside.

There was a decent crowd of people, mainly families, sitting around a man who was telling a funny story, so Hannah and I stuck around to listen.  He was speaking pretty fast so I couldn't quite catch everything, but enough to get the gist (of course now I can't remember what the story was about). 

One of the highlights of Salento was our introduction to a popular Colombian game called Tejo.  The best way to describe Tejo is being a mix between horseshoes and bags (cornhole), but with the occasional explosion.  The goal is to throw a heavy (~5 lb) metal puck a solid 20 meters and get it within a circular disk that rests in an angled box full of clay.  There are 2 pouches, called mechas, full of gunpowder that are placed on the perimeter of the target disk.  You take turns with your opponent(s) and score points by getting your puck closest to the target disk.  You get extra points for making the mechas explode upon impact.  I'm a pretty decent bags thrower so I thought I'd be a natural, but I changed my mind about that pretty quickly after realizing how much more difficult it was to accurately throw a 5 pound chunk of metal a distance of 20 meters (~65 feet) than to throw a soft, lightweight beanbag a measly 15 feet or whatever it is. 

The second highlight of Salento was hiking through the Cocora Valley, one of the Lonely Planet must-do's.  Hannah and I got up early to get to the area where Jeeps take you to the trail entrance where we met up with a Spanish couple, a brother and sister from Germany, and one other girl.  We all crammed into a Jeep and had some time to get to know each other during the 30 minute ride.  We spent the whole morning walking up and down a maze of trails through a mix of forest and open valley and then stopped around noon at a little hiker shack where we ate the tuna and crackers we'd brought as well as some cheese and hot chocolate (yes, an interesting combination) that were served to us by the nice old lady that worked there.

(We all tried to set up our cameras on a ledge and set 10 second timers so everyone could be in the shot, but since everyone had to set up their own cameras and then run back we didn't quite make it back to the ideal spot)

We continued our hike after lunch, descending back into the valley where we were met with some of the most incredible views I've seen in my life (I'm pretty sure this exact shot is in the Lonely Planet guide).

On the way back down, we got some great views of the giant wax palms, which are native to this region of Colombia and grow up to 50 meters tall!  They were definitely the tallest palm trees I had ever seen.

(I had to climb one for the sole purpose of putting their height in perspective, not because I still can't refrain from climbing trees or anything)

We had to hustle to get back to the trail entrance in time to make the afternoon Jeep pickup so as not to be stranded there for 2 more hours, which made for a little added exercise.  Since there was another couple waiting to get back when we arrived at the Jeep stop, three of us ended up standing on the back bumper and hanging on for the whole half hour ride back into town, while the rest were cooped up on the inside.  It was a great way to end the hiking trip.

The hiking trip was followed by a delicious meal in town and packing to get ready to move on south to Ecuador!