Underestimation is the word we would use to describe the error in establishing a schedule for our visit to Colombia. After spending nearly four months in Central America, our ability to estimate the size of Colombia was significantly impaired. We thought we could spend three weeks exploring Colombia but five or six would have been much more sufficient. Colombia is nearly the size of every country we visited since Mexico combined and, being on a bit of a time budget, we had a lot of driving ahead of us.
Leaving Medellin, we drove south to the small mountain village of Jardin. The mountains along the route were what we would expect from the Andes Mountains of South America; heavily forested mountains with sharp, rugged peaks. It was apparent we were back in coffee country as nearly every mountainside was dotted with coffee plants, supplemented with banana trees for shade.
Near the center of Jardin, very intricate cobblestone lined the entire central area. The town’s main church was more of a gothic style, unlike the majority of other churches we have seen along the way. It is an incredibly colorful town and it appears that residents compete in designing the most colorful doors possible. Each building throughout the town was unique and enjoyable to see.
Walking for nearly an hour proved sufficient to see the majority of the town. We took advantage of a nice hiking trail passing through coffee and banana plantations, over a beautiful river and arriving at a mirador overlooking the valley. About halfway through the hike, we zigged when we should have zagged and lost the trail entirely. We scrambled through a coffee plantation and arrived at a dirt road that led us back to town. It was a leisurely hike that got our blood flowing nicely and provided us with the ability to see the incredible beauty that Colombia has to offer.
From Jardin, we continued south towards Manizales where a sticker shop awaited us. When we left the US, we intended on buying a sticker in ever country we visited but we lost track of our goal and didn’t end up buying any! oops! Instead, we found a map of the Americas with each country’s flag as the “filler” that looked appealing to us. The shop printed a huge sticker and put it on the camper for us for $5. In the US, it would have easily cost us $50 or more. Across the street from the sticker shop was a tire shop where we got an alignment and tires rotated. As we left Manizales, we were at the highest high having our truck in good working order and a new sticker for the camper costing next to nothing. Our high was quickly crushed as we pulled into our camp spot for the night with a great rattling sound coming from the engine bay. It was dark, so we parked the truck and until morning to assess the sound.
In the morning, we got up and began poking around under the hood. The engine oil level was fine and oil looked normal. Nothing else looked out of place and the work done the prior day didn’t appear to be the culprit. Looking from the bottom of the motor upwards, everything looked normal except there was a small amount of coolant leaking from midway up on the front passenger side of the motor. We had a problem that could be small but could also be major. Knowing that our truck has the infamous “killer dowel pin” and unsure that our shop in Casper actually put the pin retainer in place, we didn’t want to start the truck until the problem was diagnosed.
Unsure as to what to do, we contacted Hernando at Iguana 4×4, who did some work for us a few weeks earlier, to help us locate a shop in Pereira. Within fifteen minutes of contacting the shop, we had a response and, a few hours later, Hernando hooked us up with a shop that could get us in first thing Monday morning and had already explained to them what was going on and what our initial assessment was. Hernando went above and beyond the call of duty to help us out and we couldn’t thank him enough for doing so!
It was Friday night when we parked and midday Saturday by the time we had shop located. the shop was closed for the remainder of the weekend so we were forced to stay put for a few days. We were incredibly lucky to be parked at a free visitor stop with toilets, wifi, coffee and everything we would need except a shower. The rest stop was on the point of a mountain top with highways surrounding it. For our two full days of waiting, it felt like we were stuck on an island, unable to leave the 100 yard diameter area. Aside from being stuck on the island, it was a good place to spend a couple of days and allowed us to get caught up on our blog, camper cleaning and Game of Thrones!
Our “island” in the middle of the city:
We didn’t want to take any chances of causing more damage by starting the truck, so on Sunday night we asked to have a tow truck called to arrive early Monday morning. The friendly folks at the rest area said it was no problem. On Monday morning, we woke up early, dropped the camper and were ready to leave at 7. After waiting until 8 with no tow truck, we asked the rest area staff again to arrange for a tow truck to arrive. Twenty minutes later, we had a tow truck driver ready to take our truck, but when we told him where we needed to go, he said he could only take us to the town of Santa Rosa on the wrong side of the mountain as he works for the highway department. He called a different tow truck driver and, twenty minutes later, began pulling our truck onto the flatbed. We believe he significantly underestimated the weight of our truck as we were slightly off center and completely squatted down the driver’s side of the flatbed until it was rubbing on his tires. During the process of unloading our truck, as we were being let down the ramps, the winch cable from the tow truck broke and the truck rolled freely until I hit the brakes hard enough to stop the truck. Everybody in the shop stopped to look at what had happened then everybody looked at Laughlin with a concerned look on their face. Luckily, we were paying attention and nothing happened.
Our mechanic jumped right under the hood and, within thirty minutes, had our water pump pulled and confirmed that this was the culprit. It was a relief to know that the fix would be easy and able to be done in one day. We got our hopes up to be out of the shop by 1 in the afternoon, but didn’t end up leaving until nearly 6. Things tend to move a little slower in Latin America and we need continual reminding of that!
From Pereira, we drove to the town of Salento on the southwest side of the Parque Nacional Los Nevados. It is a popular tourist destination primarily due to its proximity to the Cocora Valley, a location where the world’s largest palm trees and national tree of Colombia grow. The trees are wax palms and can grow to be 180 feet tall. To visit the valley, we took a long hike through the mountains surrounding the valley. Around every corner, we stepped to the edge of the trees and were in awe seeing these incredibly tall, skinny trees towering alone in the pastures or twenty, thirty or fifty feet higher than the “normal” trees of the valley. We completed the hike in about four hours opting to skip an optional part of the hike and arrived at the truck just as the rain started to fall.
Following our hike, we drove back to Salento where were parked near the square. As soon as we parked, we noticed four locals swarm to the back to our camper pointing at our new sticker. The sticker has received much attention in a short period of time and has come in as a very handy tool to explain where we live and where we have visited. The locals in Salento are some of the most friendly we have met and we really enjoyed visiting with them all!
Our next stop following Salento was the town of Popayan. It is often called the “White City” as the colonial portion of the downtown is completely whitewashed. We didn’t explore too much as we had another long driving day ahead of us but we did get out and explore the famous downtown area. Many folks who had written about their visit mentioned that they got bad vibes from the city but we did not. At 8am, we were strolling through the central square area, often greeted by passers by. We popped into a nice little cafe for a quick cup of coffee and treats before beginning our long drive for the day. The treats were great but we still haven’t acquired the taste for unblended coffee!
Many huge mountain passes lay in our route as we neared Lago de la Cocha. We started the day by leaving Popayan at nearly 6,000 feet in elevation, dropped to 2,000, climbed to nearly 11,000 and finally settled at 8,500. In many places during our drive we could see small farms operating on the opposite mountainsides and concluded that they must be incredibly isolated without a bridge connecting the two sides. To drive to the bottom of the canyon, then back up to reach a town of any size could take many hours. We finally arrived at Jardin del Lago a few hours before dark. The restaurant lets overlanders park for free and use all of their facilities in exchange for purchase of food. We enjoyed a three course meal of chicken soup, fried trout with rice and french fries and dessert of fruit and cheese. We paid $16 and that included a beer and tip as well. Heck of a deal! The temperatures dropped into the 50’s for the first time since leaving Mexico so we ended up staying for two nights to enjoy the cool weather and rest after two long driving days.
We also took a nice walk with our furry friends Caramel and Stumpy who provided plenty of entertainment!
Our final stop before crossing the border to Ecuador was the Las Lajas Sanctuary. The church was built over the course of 30+ years and was finally finished in 1949. Typically, we see churches built on a hilltop with an incredible view, but Las Lajas is different in that it is built at the bottom of a gorge. Unique to the church is the bridge in front of the church that spans the river flowing wildly below. Its grey brick with white mortar is also peculiar and unique to the church. To visit the church, we opted to take the world’s slowest gondola ride which took us from high up on the mountainside to the bottom of the gorge below. As we rode the 25 minutes to the bottom, we thought that this gondola ride may be a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Regardless, it was a fun way to arrive to the Sanctuary and our visit to Las Lajas was thoroughly enjoyable!
Almost exactly a month after arriving, we prepared for our departure of Colombia with heavy hearts. The landscapes, the sights, and, most importantly, the people shined throughout our entire visit to our first South American country. It is certainly one of our favorite countries for many reasons and we hope to return again someday!