Archive for November, 2011

Quito, Ecuador – Cable car to the home mountain

Montag, November 28th, 2011

Quito’s home mountain is Rucu Pichincha. To get to the dormant 4,698 m / 15,413 ft volcano we take the cable car. The Teleférico (parking lot at S 00°11’28.9’’ W 78°31’04.4’’) takes us for 8.50 $ (return ticket) from 3,100 m / 10,170 ft to 4,000 m / 13,123 ft with gorgeous view to Quito. That gets even better from the mountain top. There is a trail to the Rucu peak, wide in the beginning, narrow and partially steep later on. The last stretch up on the rock is associated with a small climb. Not too difficult as an oncoming mountain climber claims, but we relinquish. We return at 4,600 m since a hail shower converts the trail into ice first, then slush, and finally sludge. Under these circumstances we would have to calculate four hours for the ascent (although the young mountaineer ran it in one and a half), and nearly as much for the descent. In this altitude we have to puff with each step, but besides lack of oxygen the elevation doesn’t harm us.

Quito, Ecuador – Four seasons in one day

Sonntag, November 27th, 2011

Quito is thought to be populated since 12,000 years, and the Inca made it a powerful trading centre in the end of the 15th century. Before the Spaniards reached the city, an Inca general burnt Quito down – as a revenge for the last Inca king killed by the conquerors, and with foresight to the well-established thrust of the Spanish warriors. The colonists only found a destroyed city, but rebuilt it quickly. The city where it is situated today was founded on December 6th 1534. This is what Quito celebrates happily during this week with musicians, artists and fireworks.

The historic centre holds many churches and other clerical buildings, but government buildings and private palaces as well. Most of the colonial city is renovated and in excellent shape – despite the many earthquakes they had to stand. Like Calle La Ronda, the oldest street in Quito. Also Plaza Grande is surrounded by historic buildings. The bishop’s seat for instance houses a little mall with souvenir shops and restaurants in a beautiful covered inner courtyard. From the Plaza there is a good view to the Panecillo hill (a popular viewpoint with locals) and the aluminium statue of Virgen de Quito.

Quito has a reputation for two things: Its resourceful thieves that work with straight razors. Recommendations go so far not to show cameras evidently and to better wear backpacks in the front. The other claim is that Quito offers all four seasons in one day. And really, in the morning it is sunny and mild most of the time, and summerly warm with intense sunlight at midday. In the afternoon rain showers or violent thunderstorms set in regularly. At night temperatures drop below wintry 10° C / 50° F.

Volcán Pululahua, Ecuador – Fog-thick soup or soup-thick fog?

Samstag, November 26th, 2011

Going back from the beach to Quito we pass the dormant volcano Pululahua, just few miles west of Mitad del Mundo. Its crater is 600 m / 200 ft deep and measures around 5 km / 3 mi in diameter. Its special feature is that we can drive down a very winding gravel trail (no special requirements to the vehicle) to the crater bottom where agriculture is carried on since ages. Camping is offered, but we stop at the access road at N 00°02’42.7’’ W 78°28’40.7’’ since an archway is visible from here, which is definitely not high enough for us. At 12 o’clock on the dot a very special spectacle meets our eyes. Thick clouds climb over the ridge of the precipice and pounce enthusiastically into the depth. In-between half an hour the entire hollow is filled with soup-thick fog.

We see to get out of here and escape to Quito. The world’s highest capital – before Bolivia’s Sucre – is situated at an elevation of 2,800 m / 9250 ft and spread rampantly during the past decades to comparatively modest 2.5 million inhabitants. Unfortunately the weather isn’t better in Quito. The sunshine a minute ago changes into a violent thunderstorm with vertical pink flashes and a hail shower that makes us flinch with every striking. Within minutes cars can’t drive off any more in the steep side roads. To make matters worse, Quito is situated in a high valley. The surrounding slopes collect the precipitation and reliably conduct it downwards, where the water masses transform the roads into torrential rivers. Despite half a meter of water depth and fountains bubbling from drains, runarounds and mopeds struggle bravely through the stream.

Fortunately the nightmare is quickly forgotten on the east side of Quito and we find in the valley of Conocoto other relatives of Walt and Lidia who own a big plot with houses for the whole family and a factory. They manufacture special textiles like belt straps for backpacks and other pieces of luggage or cleaning sponges and rags.

Mompiche, Ecuador – The curse of successful aqua culture

Dienstag, November 22nd, 2011

Angel is a diamond. He invites us one more time to a savoury breakfast when he returns with his American group of 14 birdwatchers for the coffee break. But then we really have to leave, the way down to the Pacific coast is long. Owing to its topographic shape Ecuador represents nearly all climate zones of the world. Today we feel like tropics. In Mompiche in the province Esmeraldas we get our private beach today. That’s the story behind: Walt and Lidia from California saw our vehicle in Joshua Tree Park, but missed us. They sent us an e-mail later and offered us to visit his son and daughter-in-law in Ecuador. Unfortunately son Ron is gone away for some days, instead of him we are looking for his wife Monica in the village Mompiche. After quite a number of the mainly black population eyed us suspiciously, nearly maliciously, her sceptic mother betrays where we could find her. A strange hostile atmosphere is prevalent in this place, but Monica is a treasure. After we drove her several times through town suddenly everything changes: The people wave to us, some even smile, although not all of them.

Mompiche shall have the most beautiful beach on the Ecuadorian mainland, but has the reputation not to be the safest place. Strolling around at nighttimes is not recommended. Monica owns a lonesome plot somewhere at the seven kilometres long grey Pacific beach. She says it is safe, and if something happens they would find the guilty person. We believe her, what else can we do? The beach nearly disappears with high tide and is not passable then, but with low tide it is wide and firm, so that not only cars but motorcycles and bicycles drive along. The water has bearable 25° C (77° F), but for South Americans this cosy spot is on of the warmest at the west coast.

Quite a few inhabitants of Mompiche make their living from tourism, although not all. Surfers and backpackers are frequently seen guests. A good deal of the coastal dwellers is unemployed, what partially explains criminality. One of the reasons, not the only one though, is the formula “many shrimps = few fish”. Already during our trip here the enormous amount of aqua cultures attracted our attention. Unfortunately raising of this shellfish is extremely little personnel-intensive so that a large part of the inhabitants has no work. In addition numerous valuable mangrove forests had to give way to the shrimps breeding. Unfortunately those are the nursery of many fishes. And so there is few fish to catch. At least a change can be listed: The worth of the mangrove forests was discerned, the remaining stock is protected, and there is even reforestation.

Reserva de la Paz, Ecuador – The bird whisperer

Montag, November 21st, 2011

“Manuela, Pancho, Maria” Angel calls, and then again with high voice “Manuelita, Panchito, Maria”. What happens then is almost incredible. Two Giant Antpittas that were already thought to be extinct – Maria and Pancho – appear from the undergrowth and allow Angel to feed them with a kind of woodworm. The nearly one foot big brown birds that mainly live on the ground are extremely rare and so timid that they always hide in the dense undergrowth of the tropical cloud forest. Maria is the grandmother, Manuela who doesn’t show up today the daughter, and Pancho the only eight months old grandson who didn’t yet give up this baby begging call.

Angel Paz is the man who performed this miracle. He is co-owner of the private nature reserve Reserva de la Paz and our guide. Angel baited different birds as well, among them several other, smaller insect eating Antpittas and the vegetarian Wood Quails. All of them are birds that can fly but usually stay hidden in the undergrowth, looking for food on the ground. For birdwatchers like the two American women who accompany us today and nature lovers this is a small sensation.

The baiting seems to do harm to the Antpittas as much as fat balls hanged outside in winter for other birds. During their breeding season the birds retreat for two months in higher elevation and are hard to lure after their return during the four months long rainy period since they easily find enough food on their own then. Besides we simply have to welcome those initiatives, because they protect the last pieces of primary forest from deforestation.

Other birds get lured by Angel’s rich repertoire of calls or can be watched from shelters at the right places; like the also rare Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (up to 40 cm / half yard) with their conspicuous plumage: bright red tuft hood reaching down halfway of the torso, black belly and grey wings. The female is inconspicuously brown. There are numerous kinds of hummingbirds and other birds as well. Despite a fast telephoto lens this kind of animal photography is difficult in the dark forest. The fun isn’t too inexpensive: Angel takes 20 $ per person, and if visiting another site belonging to his brother after that to see two more rare kinds of Antpittas there will be another 5 $.

For that we receive a seven-hour program (from morning 5:30 to 12:30) with a coffee break and hearty breakfast, consisting of a deep-fried plantain dumpling with chicken stuffing and other Ecuadorian specialties. We make an acquaintance with Angel Paz and his family, a super nice, genuine, nature loving Indígena who really performs hard work when seeking and luring the birds. He is supported by his brother. I somehow lose track of the family as so many men introduce themselves as Angel’s brothers during yesterday’s evening and today. As Angel tells me that they are nine I don’t wonder anymore. At the starting point of the hike there is a kitchen, bathrooms, and a dining area. We may camp here for free as long as we want; we are even offered to use the kitchen.

An appointment is essential for a visit at Reserva de la Paz. Use a tourist agency or call Angel Paz directly if you speak Spanish: +593 (0)87 253674. Coming on route # 28 from Quito to Los Bancos turn left into a gravel driveway 10 km / 6 mi after Nanegalito at N 00°01’59.0’’ W 78°43’14.7’’. After 4.5 km / 2.8 mi you reach a small parking lot (N 00°01’12.3’’ W 78°42’26.0’’). You can also sleep at Angel’s finca in Nanegalito if you don’t want to drive up yourself. Some clearance should be o.k. for this road in dry season. You can go through the shallow river if you don’t trust the wood bridge. Angel plans to build cabañas on the mountain next year. The overnight place deserves 5* since it is completely lonesome and quiet, not even traffic noise and no dogs can be heard.

Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador – Crossing-the-line ceremony

Sonntag, November 20th, 2011

The equator is only five kilometres south of Cayambe at the eastern branch of the forking Pan Americana. If we wouldn’t have watched the street signs carefully, we would have passed the unspectacular monument. The sundial equal to pre-Columbian examples with Cayambe Volcano in the background is definitely photogenic. And funny with it, we can stand with one leg on the northern, with the other on the southern hemisphere. Of course, the crossing-the-line ceremony can’t be missed. Fortunately we brought the Champaign from Colombia where alcohol is less expensive. Although it is not our first equator crossing, it is the first time on foot respectively by car, and for Arminius it is definitely the first time. The visit of the monument is complimentary, but for listening to the explanations of the local guide a “donation” of 1 $ per person is requested.

In contrast to the quiet “real” equator monument is the completely commercialised tourists’ spectacle Mitad del Mundo 25 km / 16 mi north-west of Quito. To visit the “centre of the world” we have to fork out 2 $ for parking and another two per person for the access. A 30 m (100 ft) high monument with a globe on top stands here, together with 13 busts of the members of the French-Spanish geodetic expedition from 1736 to 1744 and the equator line that the scientists calculated back then. Too bad that it is wrong. The commission miscalculated it for 180 m (197 yards). In view of the year a forgivable mistake. In the monument is an ethnologic museum whose mediocre call one can follow for another 3 $ or not. Around the monument there is a whole lot of tourist fuss including the indispensable restaurants and souvenir shops. Despite the hustle and bustle – Mitad del Mundo is an essential part of an Ecuador trip.

Cayambe, Ecuador – Snow on equator

Samstag, November 19th, 2011

Another delightful piece of side road goes from Ibarra via La Esperanza, Zuleta and Olmedo to Cayambe. Until Olmedo we chug over old pavement stones and gravel, the last 18 km / 11 mi are paved. The route takes us through scenic páramo highland. Buses go here, so the road isn’t exacting to the vehicle except for suspension and damping. We get close to the beautiful 5,790 m / 19,000 ft high snow-covered Cayambe. The dormant volcano whose southern slope is crossed by the equator is worldwide the highest elevation along the equator line.

The weather is kind to us today and the glacier peak is aglow in front of steel-blue sky. We stay in Cayambe town and ask in the horse farm Shungu Huasi if they would allow us to camp. The hotel operation seems to sleep and there are not many horses. Doesn’t matter, the young woman welcomes us and we agree on 5 $. We prefer to park in front of the residential building instead at the stables where there are bathrooms but many flies as well. A quiet kilometre off the main road we still have a precious view to Cayambe Mountain. Shungu Huasi horse farm: N 00°03’02.2’’ W 78°09’17.5’’.

Ibarra, Ecuador – Insurance and other purchases

Freitag, November 18th, 2011

The insurance office is located in Ibarra at the named site (N 00°20’47.8’’ W 78°07’53.8’’). Colonial Seguro sells us a third-party-insurance for a month although the lady at the reception claims something different in the beginning and I nearly want to leave. A SOAT is available for one month or one year only. We receive a paper and a sticker for the windshield to show the police from far that we are insured. The costs for an RV shall vary between five and seven dollars, we pay 5.09 $. Since 2000 Ecuador uses the US$ as only valid currency. A couple of hundreds of yards south to the insurance office a mall is situated with a supermarket of the nationwide Maxisuper chain (N 00°20’46.4’’ W 78°08’07.3’’).

Generally food in Ecuador is slightly less expensive than Colombia, but prices are subject to strong fluctuations. Especially inexpensive are cheese and produce with many varieties. Meat is o.k. in price, bread in comparison insolently expensive. A loaf of coloured (“wholegrain”) or uncoloured white bread gives you 4 $. Alcohol is very expensive with nearly one dollar for a small bottle – remember we are in a third-world-country with very low incomes. Maybe the current president wants to solve the ever-present alcohol problem (everywhere in Latin America) in his country that way? In the mall you can find all mobile phone providers to get SIM chips for your phone, or air cards as well. We are lucky that Julius sells us his USB modem that he doesn’t need, so we save a lot of money. In Ibarra you can overnight at the PS gas station N 00°21’39.8’’ W 78°06’43.2’’. We prefer to go back the half hour to Julius to barbecue with the entire family.

Valle de Chota, Ecuador – A name, a country: Ecuador, the equator state

Donnerstag, November 17th, 2011

That was the fastest Latin American border check so far. The departure from Colombia took 15 minutes including pulling in, pulling out, and money exchange. Of course there is a customs clearance as well. The temporary import permit is simply withheld, but we are asked politely if we would like to have a copy and get it stamped. Then we receive the departure stamp, and off we go to Ecuador. The passport check is fast like always, only at the customs we have to wait a bit since another German couple enters with its own camper as well. All border officers are very obliging. We need altogether an hour, and then we have the vehicle permit in our hands. There are no obtrusive border helpers in South America any more. Although we come from the drug country Colombia, nobody is interested in our camper’s content. Maybe that’s because Ecuador plants enough cocaine itself. Both border crossings were free.

On inquiry we are confirmed that a third-party-insurance for vehicles is mandatory for foreigners in Ecuador as well. We could buy it in the next town Tulcan what doesn’t work out. Finally they send us to the next city Ibarra, which is not on our itinerary today. Instead we visit the cemetery that might be the most beautiful in Ecuador. Hundreds of cypress bushes were cut into elaborate shapes, partially according pre-Colombian motifs. The facility is huge and still offers a lot more room to die. Between the green works of art white multi-storey urn tombs with affectionately decorated graves were built. The initiator of the art cemetery himself is buried under the green in the meantime. “A cemetery so beautiful that it invites to die” is written on his gravestone. His sons continue the tradition.

Five kilometres (3 mi) behind Tulcan the old Pan-Americana branches off to the west and leads in an arc over a plateau at around 12,000 ft to El Angel. In the course of the wonderfully lonesome stretch it touches the El Angel reserve, where the frailejonas that we already met in Colombia (see blog entry from 01.11.2011) get several metres high. Their sheer amount is impressive – they are millions and millions. The mountainous region that’s called páramo in Ecuador isn’t less attractive. Apart from the tiny hamlets in the beginning and the end of the 42 km / 26 mi long trail there is no traffic on the way and only one tiny hacienda. The route consists of old not hewed paving stones that disappeared for the most part and gave way to dirt. There are some deep mud holes on the marshy plateau – it’s better not to dare to get here without all-wheel drive. In El Angel we reach asphalt and 20 km / 12 mi later the new Pan Am. In between times we fill up our tank. Ecuador is a dreamland for drivers. Diesel costs 1.03 $ per gallon, regular 1.48 $ and super 2 $. The diesel is filtered and not dirty at all.

Further down we go on the Pan Am to 1,500 m / 5,000 ft to the hot valley of Chota River. The climatic enclave is alike a semi-desert with few precipitation. We are looking for Julius, a Liechtensteiner emigrant who is resident and married in Ecuador since 18 years. His small hostal isn’t yet opened officially, so we don’t find the ex-rocker and Harley driver immediately. Since there is only one gringo in town we finally discover what we are looking for and are warmly welcomed. Behind the restaurant we park relatively protected from the noise of the Pan Am. Julius is always available for a beer and a chat. He became quiet now and fond of children as well: He’s got four now. His facility Route km 121 is located in ideal distance to the border. Camping shall cost 5 $ per vehicle, including use of the pool. Ask also for his cabins. Cold beer and barbecue stuff is on hand as well. Julius asks for booking if somehow possible (E-Mail / Facebook:, Tel. +593 (0)6 2637223, Mob. +593 (0)94 119763). He can be found 100 m / yards south of Ambuqui toll station on the western side of the road at km 139.5: N 00°28’09.6’’ W 78°02’37.4’’.

Las Lajas, Colombia – Snow in Colombia

Mittwoch, November 16th, 2011

We look out of our window and everything is white. Is that the proof that in this country nose candy lies everywhere on the streets? Hardly. A dramatic thunderstorm with long-lasting hail shower lets the temperature drop from 30° C / 85° F in the hot morning to 8° C / 45° F. That is called diurnal climate. All seasons in one day, typical equatorial highland climate – we are in 9,000 ft after all. We still camp on the parking lot above the pilgrimage town Las Lajas. Joerg had for some of days an indefinable afternoon fever without any other symptoms, which hindered us from driving on. Is it one of these odd virus diseases passed on by mosquitoes that disappear as fast as they appeared? I bake a convalescence cake just to be on the safe side and lift my cake embargo lasting for years. Whatever helped, it seems that we are ready to continuing our trip.

The parking lot is well visited by busses with pilgrims, especially on weekends. Then the parking lot attendant turns up who collects the parking fees. We stay undisturbed. Besides a small chat the man doesn’t want anything from us. Astonishing. A bit above the parking lot a family lives who owns a water connection and kindly supplies us with drinking water for our water tank. When filling up this morning – we want to be prepared for our onward journey – we talk to the adult son of the family who washes cars in daytime about the necessity to learn Spanish when travelling individually in this part of the world.

A reoccurring question is, if Spanish is difficult to learn. The grammar is difficult, I explain him, much more difficult than in English. He hesitates: Isn’t German the same like English, isn’t that our mother language? Besides the disturbing gap in the young man’s education he expresses what we often experienced. If a Latin American speaks another language (mostly English) that is a magnificent achievement. They assume that every tourist naturally speaks English, that it must be his mother tongue. They don’t even consider that learning a foreign language (English as well) might be linked with the same difficulties for us. To put it in a nutshell: All non-Latin Americans are gringos, and all gringos speak English. Beautiful simple world.

Las Lajas, Colombia – The wonder-working Virgin

Dienstag, November 8th, 2011

The Virgin Mary in the pilgrimage church in Las Lajas is regarded as miraculous. From the border town Ipiales it is seven kilometres / 4.5 mi east to the small town. There is a spectacular sight from a view point into the deeply carved gorge where Rio Guáitara gurgles before even reaching the village. A 45 m / 150 ft high stone arch bridge spans the river, the small grey and white church leans on it and cuddles up to the ravine wall. Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Las Lajas was finished in 1949 in neo-Gothic style and replaced the chapel from 1803.

According to the legend Holy Mary appeared to a deaf and dumb Indian girl on a day in September 1754. “The mestiza is calling me!” she said to her mother, pointing on a rock where the Virgin became apparent. Henceforth the child was able to hear and speak. The spot where the miracle took part is the altar back wall today, the Madonna was drawn on the rock. The Holy Mary is still wonder-working. At least this is what thousands of votive tablets tell that were glued to the rock face with plaster.

From a small parking lot (2,000 Pesos) in town we walk down to the pilgrimage church along uncounted souvenir shops. An alternative parking lot above (N 00°48’27.5’’ W 77°34’54.7’’) is quiet, free of charge and offers a lot of space for camping. But take care, every year in September (around the 16th) thousands of Ecuadorians and Colombians make a pilgrimage to Las Lajas to ask for fulfilment of their wishes. The pay kiosk is already waiting for the masses.

Volcán El Azufral, Colombia – Our first mountain over 4,000 metres / 13,000 ft

Montag, November 7th, 2011

The wool hat on the head, the fleece jacket and the thick winter rain jacket at the top, the warm rain hiking pants down: that’s how we start today’s hike. Oh yes, we are still in Colombia. But even on the equator it is chilly in 13,000 ft. The average temperature here is 6° C / 43° F, plus there are deep clouds and rain that reliably starts in the afternoon. The hike is still worth it. It brings us onto the quiet Volcán El Azufral, what means sulphur volcano, of which the highest point is 4,070 m / 13,350 ft. It has three lakes in its crater: Laguna Verde that got its green colour from the sulphur, the deeply dark Laguna Negra and Laguna Blanca, which has more green than clear water.

Laguna Verde has snow-white beaches and bare rocks that are covered with a yellowish white sulphur layer. It is possible to partially walk around the lake. The chilly, constantly bubbling poison water is not suited to swim in. From holes in the ground stinky steams escape. The surroundings of the volcano are densely grown over with thick moss pillows, lichen, grasses, and low brush. 70 creeks shall rise from here what I believe straight away. The almost 5 km / good 3 mi ascend from the parking lot at 3,670 m / 12,000 ft to the sign on the summit at 4,000 m / 13,125 ft are wet and muddy.

We manage the trail that is apart from the last stretch mildly steep in a nippy hour and fifteen, despite the elevation. Then it takes half an hour to descend the 200 m / 656 ft of elevation in almost one kilometre / 1000 yards down to the lagoons, fist through a rocky brook bed, then over steps partially broken off in an extremely slippery upland moor. This is equally the most difficult part of the hike. It came in useful to us that we already slept the last night on the parking lot what helped us to become acclimatized.

The access to volcano Azufral is two kilometres / 1.25 mi behind the city of Túquerres on the road to Olaya (turnoff at N 01°05’43.1’’ W 77°41’08.4’’). From there it is 7 km / 4.5 mi continuously worsening and partially narrow gravel trail. Parking is at the side of the road at the ranger station (N 01°05’41.7’’ W 77°41’08.4’’), for camping we have to use the upper part of the trail. Levelling is difficult but possible (only for AWD). Volcano access is 1,000 COP pp, parking 5,000 COP once only. We don’t pay anything for two nights camping. The hike is worth the effort, it is a simple mountain over 4,000 m / 13,000 ft, and a great habituation to higher elevation.

Túquerres, Colombia – Panamericana Sur

Sonntag, November 6th, 2011

Along the Pan Americana from Popayán to the south some camping options offer:
* Truck stop Biomax, Panoya, 68 km / 43 mi north of Pasto, quiet grass/gravel area: N 01°34’04.1’’ W 77°21’00.1’’
* Texaco truck stop north of Pasto, a lot of space, very busy: N 01°15’49.5’’ W 77°16’42.7’’
* Gas station south of Pasto, quieter: N 01°09’48.1’’ W 77°17’43.9’’
* The restaurant Country House in Pasto that was mentioned by other travellers in the past is ruled out since it’s not operating.
* Biomax truck stop Porvenír, N 01°06’57.5’’ W 77°22’51.2’’
* Esso truck stop south of Tangua, N 01°03’53.2’’ W 77° 25’43.7’’
* Esso truck stop 14 km / 9 mi north of Ipales, N 00°54’31.7’’ W 77°31’40.0’’
* Terpel truck stop Ipales, N 00°50’05.3’’ W 77°35’55.8’’
* Fuel is in Colombia generally more expensive than in Ecuador. Diesel costs about 8.000 Peso per gallon, gas around 10,000. On the other hand, fuel is said to have poor quality in Ecuador. It is good to know that the department Nariño at the border to Ecuador has tax privileges. Upon leaving Cauca prices at the gas stations change. Diesel is only 5.000 COP per gallon.

Popayán, Colombia – Operation in the eternal war

Freitag, November 4th, 2011

Helicopter rotors boom above our heads. One after the other arises into the air, propeller-driven planes roar. We knew that there is a military base close to the house of Carlos and Lucia. But who would have guessed that there are so many helicopters stationed here? The noise doesn’t seem to end and Popayán’s inhabitants slowly start to worry. It can’t be an exercise. Something’s going on. But only the evening news discloses the secret: The Colombian military killed the leader of the biggest guerrilla organisation FARC, Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas alias Alfonso Cano, during a large-scale operation that was planned for two years. He held the office since 2008. His body was found besides the one of his girl-friend close to the village Micay. The detailed facts of their deaths are unknown at present.

The Pacific region of the department Cauca, of which Popayán is the capital, is in the hand of the guerrillas for years. Although the targeted killing without legal proceedings seems to be questionable according to criteria founded on the rule of law, the Colombian nation welcomes the act. The guerrilla organisation that might really have fought for the country’s workers and farmers became really only an end in itself. It terrorises citizens, steels land from farmers instead of getting it for them as basis of life, abducts, kills, and finances itself with drug trafficking. The FARC shrank from originally 17,000 members to about 8,000 today.

The people still stay suspicious. Many of the former or present members of the government (including an ex-president) are said to have belonged to a guerrilla or paramilitary organisation in the past. Many government members are suspected of dealing with illegal organisations and exchanging information. Further the rulers are reproached for promoting the eternal war since arms trade is as lucrative as the drug dollars that flow into the country. Therefore the blow against the FARC is a big thing for Colombians, during American and European news hardly takes notice of this incident.

Popayán, Colombia – The white city

Donnerstag, November 3rd, 2011

Popayán counts – beside Cartagena and Mompós – to the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. For us it has much more charm than Cartagena, since it is also outside the historic centre a pleasant city worth living in. The town with only 250,000 inhabitants that was founded in 1537 has produced more intellectuals, bishops, and presidents than any other Colombian city. Its constant spring climate makes our stay pleasant.

Its title Ciudad Blanco origins from the uniformly whitewashed facades in the old town. Here are the sights like the Basilica Metropolitana, the square clock tower Torre del Reloj with a clock from London (since 1737) with only one hand, the baroque church San Francisco, and the bridges made from hundreds of thousands of bricks. Doing a round is especially worth in the evening when the colonial buildings are lit full of atmosphere.

Popayán, Colombia – The two faces

Mittwoch, November 2nd, 2011

Here they are again, the two faces of Colombia. We arrive in Popayán in the early afternoon to look for a camping option first. The only truck stop that has some space to park and is somehow suitable is the southern Biomax (N 02°25’12.6’’ W 76°37’57.5’’). We ask additionally at a restaurant with big parking lot, but you can probably imagine the answer: Yes, but … it’s 50,000 Pesos. Of course. We head to the Carrefour supermarket first to buy some grocery. Here they have a truck access as an exception (at N 02°27’36.6’’ W 76°35’43.4’’). Further south on the Pan Am there is the less expensive Exito supermarket.

We hardly started to push our cart through the aisles, the other Colombian face stands in front of us: Lucia and Carlos, a super-nice Colombian couple. They take the overnight question off our shoulders because they simply invite us to stay with them. From one planned night result three. Later Carlos explained us his theory how they found us in the huge mall after they discovered the Unimog in the parking lot. Well, how would you look for two Germans driving such a vehicle? 1. Travellers don’t buy clothes or shoes, they purchase food and have to be in the grocery. 2. Unimog drivers have to be tall, everything else would be uncomfortable. 3. Germans aren’t usually dark types, they have more likely blue eyes and lighter hair. 4. Where to find Germans in a supermarket? In the beer aisle. That’s exactly where we meet.

Coconuco, Colombia – Stressed backsides in hot water

Dienstag, November 1st, 2011

It seems to be harder to find overnight places in Colombia than a couple of years ago. All restaurants along the Pan Am asked for 50,000 Pesos (27.50 $) per night from us – regardless if we were willing to dinner there or not. I don’t hesitate calling this outrageous, but maybe they simply want to chase this kind of traveller away. Other places simply didn’t want us. Generally I would say Colombia already discovered that money can be earned with tourism without that they provide appropriate infrastructure or service. For example, there is nearly nobody in this country speaking English – neither in high-educated circles, nor in tourism (the young generation starts to change). I guess one can’t expect from every overseas tourist to visit a language course before? I also have the feeling that they are quite interested in other than South American travellers. And we have to always consider that Colombia is a developing country where average salary is around 200 $! On the other hand, people especially in the south are very friendly, extremely polite, and honest. Nowhere else except in Canada we received so many food presents than here.

In the hot springs of Aguatibia close to Coconuco we are asked for 8.000 Peso (4.50 $) entrance fee per person plus 15.000 Peso (8 $) per vehicle / tent for camping (no service except a very far bathroom up the hill and cold outside showers) – 17 $ together, close to the edge. We stay nevertheless to relax our muscles stressed from horse riding in the algae-green fizzing thermal tubs well at body temperature and in the little bit cooler, clear-blue mineral water pool stocked with tiny fishes. Besides, overnight places are rare in this area. Coconuco is located at the road # 20 from San Agustín to Popayán. For the good 100 km / 65 mi five hours have to be calculated: one hour pavement, three hours gravel with many working areas where there is only one-lane traffic. From here, where the hot springs are located, it’s another hour pavement to Popayán. On the plateau at 3,000 m / 10,000 ft elevation frailejonas resp. espeletia can be seen. These composites are so-called half-shrubs and typical for the tropical highlands, but grow only in northern South America. On a stem of dried leaves pineapple-like small tops grow that look a bit like a small agave with white fur. Termales Aguatibia, Coconuco, N 02°18’23.9’’ W 76°30’26.0’’