From Ipiales to Otavalo: Crossing to Ecuador

For some reason I was dreading the process of getting from Popayan to Ecuador. I felt like procrastinating, and taking too much time by spending the night in the border town of Ipiales. But I persevered, and I was right, it was a righteous thrash.

The first bus took me from Popayan to Pasto in 6 hours, more or less. A short taxi ride to my hotel and a rather poor night’s sleep due to noisy neighbors, and I was ready to push on to Ipiales. That leg took a couple of hours in the morning, and I was I Ipiales, the border town, by about 10:30 AM. I had to store my luggage for a couple of hours to go to the Sanctuario las Lajas, the must see, and only, attraction of Ipiales.

After getting off the bus, I found, quite to my amazement, a big sign pointing me to the luggage storage area, a couple of flights down from the street, but there was a ramp. Was it too much to hope for? Well, yes, it turned out. I wheeled my bags down the several flights of ramp and found no luggage storage. Just an empty hall with doors that had no signs and were firmly locked.

I went to a few of the ticket counters and tried to ask for luggage storage and was greeted by unfriendly blank stares. Finally one ticket agent pointed me back up to the top of the ramp. I went as he said. Nothing, nada. I asked in a little restaurant and was pointed back downstairs. I looked rather skeptical, I guess, because a young man took me back down, and then to a little tiny store. There was no sign or any indication whatsoever that this was a luggage storage place. After quizzing the young man who worked there, I was only mildly assured that he had taken on the storage duties while the regular facility was under repair. I knew it was a bit of a roll of the dice, but the people there looked okay, especially the abuela (grandmother). I took the risk.

There was a $6 dollar taxi round trip to the Sanctuario, or wait for a $2 shared ride. I splurged. It was a short ride, a stop at an overlook, and then the march down to the actually church, and, of course, back up. Damn, on a bad night’s sleep and an exhausting morning, it was a long ways down and up again. But I made it!

(Traveler’s hint for the less ambitiously inclined: There are 1000 photos online of the Sanctuario Las Lajas. No one but yourself will know if you don’t actually take the 2 hour side trip from Ipiales and the mandatory march up and down the chasm. I was sorely tempted, but instead I was just sore.)

I got back to the terminal in serious need of some coffee, but not ready for what the little cafe’s had to offer (bad coffee should be a crime in Colombia.) so I bought a coke to stave off a caffeine headache and went in search of the collectivo to the border. However, instead of asking for “frontera”, I grabbed a collectivo for Las Lajas! Idiot! (I am traveling alone, so I have the task of chastising myself). I took another round trip to Las Lajas, with luggage in tow (yes, the place was legit) and returned to the terminal to start again. I got a van collectivo  and headed to the border. It was well into the afternoon.

The border at Colombia was easy, except it was, inexplicably up two flights of stairs, over unused space. I guess the bad guys would be dissuaded by the steps? I dragged my bags up the stairs, got my stamp, and then back down. (There is a small part of me that wishes someone would actually help themselves to one of the bags, the one with cheap clothes that could be replaced).

There is a short hike to the other side to Ecuador immigration, which also was easy. I caught a cab to the border town, got overcharged, but to the bus station. I took the next bus to Otavalo, which is meant to be a 3.5 hour ride. It is easy here to determine the length of ride by the fare or vice versa in Ecuador, as the fare is about $1.00 US per hour. In theory. In Colombia the bus stops for everyone, and the driver has to let on every food peddler along the way. And there are police and military stops, and stops for no discernible reason. about 4.5 hours later I was rather unceremoniously dropped off on a street on the outskirts of Otovalo with a couple of other backpackers..

After one of those hellish days of traveling, things ended rather splendidly, though. The backpackers had no reservations and said there was nothing on line. I did have a reservation, so the two of them came with me to check and see if there was anything available where I was staying. We arrived in a taxi to a place that looked closed. After buzzing at the door a few times, eventually a couple of young men arrived and turned on a couple of lights. I’m telling you, the hundreds-year-old building made Bates Motels cross my mind (the tenor of the day was with me). We were led upstairs to the most lovely, but seemingly deserted, hostel. There is a library room with tons of videos and books but in the darkness, that added to the eeriness of the place. Upstairs from that, rooms on balconies with splendid views of the city, the cathedral, and six huge volcanoes! At the top there is as big kitchen which opens on to the volcano view. The rooms are small but clean and sweet, and maybe haunted. For a very old building it is in good nick, with great wood windows and ancient worn embedded floors. $15 a night.

I wondered as I crossed the border if Ecuador could be that different than Colombia, and in what ways would it differ. It does feel different, more Andean, more indigenous. The food doesn’t seem to have improved much, but I don’t have a lot to go on yet. It is a bit less cheap, but there are markets and grocers and a good kitchen, so that solves the food problem. Black beans and rice, fresh guacamole and a glass of wine in the kitchen of the hostal was a great dinner.

I’ll be going to Quito after this, and then on to a tiny​ town in a cloud forest, Mindo. The place sounds rather idyllic-with a huge variety of birds and butterflys, orchids, a zipline, a river and a chocolate factory that produces chocolate from its own trees grown on the grounds.
This traveling stuff is hard work, but pretty amazing. I’m mostly glad I am doing it alone and I have time, as I can stop and take a week or so here and there if I choose, and I have been so choosing. But it gets lonely and a bit disorienting. Sometimes I feel like I am completely disconnected from the world, and sometimes that is amazingly liberating, but other times I feel I am some sort of alien. Which, I guess I am.
Las Lajas (Yes! My photo!)


The plaques are installed by people who feel their prayers have been answered. I know mine was when I made it back to the top of the hill!
The church looks like carbon gingerbread held together with sugar frosting.
Very welcome sight
Night view from my room in Otavalos
Volcano by day. Otavalo is at 3000 meters.
The town is mostly indigenous

Easter Week/Semana Santa Popayan Colombia

My legs wore out on the third night of processions, but, damn it, I was in Popayan and it was Semana Santa, so it was processions. The holy week processions have been going on here for something like 400 years. I imagine back a few hundred years ago the whole town proceeded along with the holy men and the flotilla of floats carried by exhausted looking mendicants and acolytes. I don’t know that the nuns carrying rather ominous looking crosses/sticks keeping the crowds in line were amongst the early marchers. Tears and wailing and gnashing of teeth seem the appropriate response to the week of passion and crucifixions.

But now there is a festive atmosphere with food, drink and balloon hawkers. Some of the solemn young women marching aside the large platforms bearing effigies of Christ and other figures bear candles and totter in high heels and miniskirts. The crowd is especially thick on Friday night and the figures are most deathly. Over the crowd’s heads hundreds of iphones flash and balloons float.  Neighbors chat and women in chairs carry on as rows of people stand in front of them, blocking the view but they don’t seem to mind.

I stood next to a man from Cali who wanted to know about my travels, and suggested I go take salsa lesson in Cali. It was all a very casual affair.

So, here are some photos:


The crowds gather before the procession commences.


An enterprising young man has rigged a portable coffee machine.












Day 42 – 43: Popoyan to Ipiales to Quito

This is an excellent post if your are entering Ecuador via Ipiales.

365daysabroad's Blog

This morning I wake up to head to Ipiales with an Irish couple I actually met in Salento. I wake up, eat breakfast, pack my bag and off we go to be at the bus terminal by 9 am. When I arrive to the bus terminal I need to take out cash to pay for the bus and my last night in Colombia. Except for some reason my debit is not working! 3 different atms and none are working! Either all the atms are out of cash (I find this hard to believe) or my debit card has been flagged by my bank. I have had 0 problems with my debit card so I am pretty shocked at this point. I tell the Irish couple and fortunately they lend me 50 mil pesos to get me through the rest of my time in Colombia. It’s not a problem because we…

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Sylvia, Colombia, in the Andes

Colombia’s population today is only less that 4% indigenous. That sad fact is the reason why it took a trip to the southern mountain town of Sylvia to get a sense of their presence. I went on Market day, when the Guambiano people come to do their marketing. These people are reputedly fierce in their opposition to the FARC, the paramilitary groups and the cartels. They, of course wish to be left to their lives. There is a good article here by Garry M. Leech about their struggles to survive and to maintain their autonomy.

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Some of the myriad variety of potatoes in Colombia


It is said that every indigenous person here knows the uses of the local plants and herbs



Salento and Filandia in Photos

Salento and Filandia sit in the middle of the Zona Cafetera in Colombia. They are about 2000 meters above sea level, so the weather is really fine and the landscape intensely green. Both are colonial towns with small populations, largely focused on coffee. Cafes surround the town squares, more in Filandia than Salento, wafting aromas of coffee and cocoa, and occasionally locally made chorizo and fresh pressed juices. Another common denominator is the presence of jeeps and horses, along with motor bikes, the dominant modes of transportation, besides walking, of which there is a lot.

I almost skipped the Zona Cafetera. It seemed, and largely is, a very touristic region, with the two main endeavors being touring coffee fincas and bucolic outdoor activities like hiking the Socorro Valley, home of the tallest palm trees on the world. But after having been sick in Bogota, and rather full of city life, and as it was “on the way” to Popayan, and I had a week before my arrival to Popayan for Semana Santa, I paid it a visit.

I went to the Socorro Valley, but skipped the coffee tours. Instead I shopped the little tiendas till I found a particular coffee to my liking, and hung out at a small cafe that serves a lovely spiced hot chocolate, and excellent wifi.

Salento town center with Jeeps for hire Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Photo of Cafe Jesus Martin
My seat at Cafe Jesus Martin Photo Credit
Town Square Salento Saturday morning Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Across the valley from the hostel Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer


Across the valley from Salento. Almost ever in the clouds Photo Credit Joanne Bretzer
Cathedral in Filandia Photo Credit Joanne Bretzer
Hanging on the corner Filandia Photo Credit Joanne Bretzer
Decorated Sidewalk Filandia Photo Credit Joanne Bretzer


Chocolate and Caldo. The food is better in Filandia Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Standard transport
Coffee drying in the street
World’s tallest palms, Socora Valley (palms, but tall) Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Yes, it is a tall palm tree Photo Credit Joanne Bretze
Traffic Jam Cocora Valley Photo Credit Joanne Bretzer


More interesting to me, Socora is full of wild orchids, often clinging to Eucalyptus Photo Credit Joanne Bretzer

Colombian Men in Situ

Stereotypes about Colombia and Colombian men are what we get in the US, and I suspect the rest of the world. We have ideas of drug traffickers, gang members, FARC, corrupt officials, and, in the US, immigrants, documented and otherwise, working as rather invisible labor in fields and gardens, and other tasks. I have been struck by the dignity of their lives in Colombia. Context matters, history matters, family, culture and traditions matter. Cut off from that, without all possibility of understanding, we are reduced to caricature.

I started to realize that I had been photographing a lot of different men. The first reason is that the public space in Colombia is dominated by men. I also find the men interesting in their presence, their sense of dignity and pride. I cannot recall, in my two months here, seeing an angry man, or a weeping man. I will be focusing more on women and sharing the photos I already have of women in the future. For now, here are some of the men of Colombia.


Harley Davidson Club, Villa de Layva Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

Saturday Gossip, Villa de Leyva Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Holy men in Popayan Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Grandson and Grandfather in the park in Medellin Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Urban men in Bogota Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Host at hostel and farm in Salento, Colombian returnee from the US, and from a US corporate career. Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
At the bar, in Salento Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Stylish working man in Salento Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
More style in Salento. The bag, espadrilles, poncho over the shoulder, knife and whip on the hip are all de rigueur for the working men in the coffee region of Colombia                            Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer
Just checking to see who is looking!


Salento, Colombia

Good Morning!

I spent almost two weeks in Bogota and am not in a country town called Salento, which is in the middle of coffee country in Colombia, about where that coffee comes from that you are now drinking. It’s really beautiful and peaceful, a nice break from the big city.

Today I’ll be going with the owner of the hostel to his family farm about an hour and a half from here, for the night, and then back to here and on south to Cali, Popayan and onwards to Ecuador.

You can look it up on a map and if you pinpoint the places I just listed, you’ll have a sense of my trail. I figure I’ll be in Quito, Ecuador within a couple of weeks.

I have found two small towns, this one and one much closer to Bogota, that would be great to settle in. The cost of living is cheap, and the places are beautiful. Both need people to teach some English, and both have whatever else I need. This is reassuring, as I will have choices. I love Colombia, and it would be no sacrifice living here. The man who owns the hostel here says I could support myself on teaching and continue to save some of my social security. That makes it tempting, I would love to be saving money against the time I don’t want to or can’t teach any more. By the way, both towns are very safe.

So there is the update report. Here are a few photos.

Coffee Country Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer


The Hostel View

Coffee Country Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

Willy Jeeps for Hire
Saturday Morning Shoeshine
Tres Caballeros
Chica y Perro


Weekend Street Market
Saturday Evening Hombres


Trump, Clinton, Sanders and the American Moment of Truth

I believe that Donald Trump may just be what America needs. He is the bright shiny object Obama was talking about, not Sanders. He is a mirror we don’t want to look into. He at once speaks to our avaricious, greedy consumerist society, and our deeply held hatred and fear of otherness. He, as some have put it, is our id. Maybe it is time that we look into the mirror, and the abyss, and finally see who we are. This is not to say that Americans are all bad, or even any worse than other peoples of other nations, but we want to believe we are the best.  That is some serious denial.

Until we come to terms with and address the problems that are the result of the original sin of America-it’s founding on racism, exploitation, genocide and forced labor-we will continue to replicate our errors and horrors. We became the richest nation in the world on the backs of others, and denial has only served us badly. Many Americans want to be better, and have limited options for how to do that. We are told to vote for the least objectionable of the two choices, and hold our noses if necessary (I am told specifically this quite regularly).

In our desire to be better we have elected Obama twice. Here was a choice we didn’t have to sugar coat. Electing Obama was a great way to tell ourselves and the world that we have matured, as a nation. Barack Hussein Obama, what an utter embrace of otherness. Black with hints of Arabian exoticism. Tall strong wife and two daughters growing up to be liberated women. But we should have known, and on some level knew, that he was reassuringly the product of the same institutions that created our previous leaders. We were embracing a simulacra of otherness without confronting the real problems with America. And we so wanted this to be a turning point.

I think we all still tread lightly when it comes to Obama, especially when we can see what comes next. But despite his highly aspirational rhetoric, almost 8 years later we have what we have today: endless war, drone murder, poverty, no longer even veiled racism, and all systems in decline (please, don’t start on Obamacare, which is a mandate to support insurance companies), and deeper cynicism. This is from Signs of the Times:

“Seven years on and the disappointment felt by many when it comes to Obama is impossible to deny. In fact, the gulf between the promise of his presidency and the reality has arguably been wider than it has with any other administration in recent memory. And while there have undoubtedly been objective factors that have made the challenges he faced upon entering office considerable – the worst economic recession to hit the country since the 1930s, the power and influence of vested interests in Washington, and a Republican controlled congress in his second term that made his tenure more difficult than many presidents have experienced – Obama nonetheless failed to live up to the expectations he sowed in the hearts and minds of those who believed in him, not only in America but across the world.”(Signs of the Times)

It’s a testament to this desire to believe we can be better that we have now cast our aspirations on another candidate that promises hope. Americans elected Obama because we could see the corruption in politics, but we just wanted a fix for it, an adjustment, a realignment. The idea that the system is so corrupt that it is beyond fixing, or worse, is just congenitally defective, is not something we wanted to face. Now we have hope in a new candidate who says that the cancer can be beaten, or at least brought to remission. Who really wants to believe that the American Political System is terminal and invasive?
If Sanders were elected, and if he is what he claims, which is a rarity in politics, he would be faced with the machinery of a Congress that is utterly controlled, despite the efforts of a few, by the triumvirate of the corporate, financial and military industrial interests. His agenda could not move forward, though its failure would be another chink in the armor of belief in the machine. Obama was thwarted in whatever good he might have offered, and he was way more centrist and compromised that Sanders ever could be (I think, at least).

So in 2016 we have Bernie Sanders, representing the impossible aspirations of some, Donald Trump representing both the deep seated animosities and anger, as well as the deluded memory of a triumphal past for others. While Clinton is the cynical reality. I know the psychoanalytically inclined political thinkers are parsing this one.
We are being led to the abyss that is American politics and looking in is terrifying. I have for years had doubts about my own beliefs about America, thinking myself too cynical and injured, and thinking I am projecting my own existential anxieties. But it is proving to be that bad, and I don’t find a shred of relief in having been right.
I would like to end this on a prescriptive note. But I can’t. There are no nostrums to offer, no palliatives or programmatic fixes. We are in the end stages of a declining empire, struggling to soften the blows. Will corporate driven neo-liberalism prevail? For how long? Will the collapsing environment drive us into a post-apocalyptic post-state anarchy? Am I being too catastrophic? I don’t think so, but I do hope so.