I have been swept off my feet by Colombia–though luckily not literally. These last few days have been full of buses, small towns, and new friends from near and far. Traveling this way is unlike most typical American vacations where variables are controlled ahead of time, where luxury and relaxation are the goals rather than the unexpected surprise. Instead, backpacking is difficult and somewhat stressful on a regular basis. Every reaction to these dilemmas reflects back all the self-doubt and anxiety that sit below the surface during day-to-day life. Traveling, if nothing else, unearths honesty.
Those of you have backpacked know this all too well–it’s unnecessary to explain. However, despite the fact that I have met many American travelers while wandering through Colombia, I know we are a minority. We are privileged to be able to experience this exploration. We have enough money, or more importantly, enough freedom to make this choice. I realize that travel itself is the luxury. However, part of our privilege is in perspective, realizing that travel is possible if it calls you enough, and you listen.
A year ago, I started reading about the experiences of one of my best childhood friends, Iris. She and her boyfriend ended up backpacking throughout most of South America over the course of nine months. Her travel stories were so clear and engaging, I found myself waiting feverishly for her next blog to drop. (It helps that she is an incredible writer.) What captivated me most was how she allowed herself to open enough to the possibility of travel, to make it a priority and a reality. At the time, I was feeling so stifled that reading her stories ignited a long-lost bug within me. She sort of gave me permission to shake the invisible weight of the “supposed to’s” in society. I realized I had the capacity to do it myself, I just had been so stuck within a different mindset. Thus, I begun “planning” my own trip.
Now, let me tell you about the last week(ish).
Also, for anyone who is salty about my lack of Spanish accents, know that it is bugging me also. I am writing on a small tablet with a tiny keyboard, and I have no idea how to access them…
*Please take a look at http://www.theamateurbackpacker.com, especially if you are curious about planning your own adventure. If you enjoy more travel misadventure stories, read her personal blog at http://www.theawkwardambler.wordpress.com*
About an hour north of Bogota, is a small quirky colonial-style town known for the Catedral de Sal–a giant salt-made cathedral that exists entirely underground within one of the largest salt mines in the world. My guidebook suggested it as a day-trip from Bogota, and many hostels within the city organize day trips there. I definitely was interested in seeing the Salt Cathedral, but I also learned there were interesting cities even further north. Therefore, instead of booking a day trip, Paul and I decided (or rather I decided and Paul said “cool” without realizing I hadn’t worked out much of the details, um transportation, yet) to figure out how to get to Zipaquira ourselves, book a hostel, and stay a couple nights. From there, we planned on heading north to Villa de Leyva, which was supposed to be beautiful.
Our last day in Bogota began quite crankily, if that’s a word. By this time, we both desperately needed to do laundry, but, at least in the neighborhood we were staying, it was difficult to find appropriate laundry services. I ended up washing my underwear and socks the evening before in the hotel sink, but by mid-morning the following day in a cloudy, chilly Bogota, they were still quite damp. Luckily, Paul found a place that was a twenty-minute walk away from our hotel, not far considering the day prior we had walked 10+ miles throughout Bogota. So, we headed out on our stressful errands: walk, laundry, walk, and pack all before check-out.
Based on my guidebook and various outdated online Lonely Planet entries, we knew, vaguely, that we could probably catch a bus to Zipaquira from Portal del Norte, a bus stop on the TransMilenio. According to the book, this bus could take anywhere from forty minutes to two hours. Portal del Norte itself was about a thirty-minute drive from our hotel, and other than the main TransMilenio buses, we really hadn’t figured out how to use the smaller buses in Bogota. Therefore, with our large backpacks loaded, we took a cheapish Uber to the bus station. From Portal del Norte, we expected that we would have to catch the bus at the station itself which was positioned in the center of a busy highway. Instead, at the edge of the highway, as our driver pulled away, a bus with the sign reading “Zipa” pulled up in its place. We were quickly hustled onto the bus, our backpacks thrown haphazardly into the bottom. And off we went, bumping along to Zipaquira.
Catedral de Sal
Before we went to the Cathedral, Paul and I stopped for breakfast at a little hole in the wall restaurant. Normally, we love these types of places, but this time our lack of Spanish skills got the better of us. Colombians traditionally eat a lot of soups and broths, even for breakfast. Paul thought he was ordering meat, as a side for his eggs, but instead he was greeted by a steamy bowl of broth with a non-descript bone in the center and a shit-ton of cilantro. Paul is one of those “cilantro is soap” people, so he was, all-in-all displeased. But he slurped it up like a champ.
If you would like to read more about Catedral de Sal, please read my article for The Amateur Backpacker at http://theamateurbackpacker.com/2018/06/12/catedral-de-sal/
Back in Bogota, we learned that coins are an essential part of anyone’s daypack. Not only are they conveninent for buses, restaurants, and street vendors, they are handy to have when approached by strangers in need. After our bus ride to Zipa, we started running out of monedas. They’re kinda hard to acquire. ATMs give only large bills, and most stores give you just bills even if you ask for coins. We meant to go to the currency exchange at the Salt Cathedral, but we forgot, so we headed to a small bank in the small town of Zipaquira.
Paul sat in the bank pouring over a small piece of paper. He decided he would exchange a 10,000 COP bill for coins. As he worked out the math, ensuring the coins he was requesting added up to the correct total, me double checking his math, neither of us took into consideration just how many coins we were asking for. Turns out, it was a ridiculous amount.
The teller, a young woman with bright red fingernails (I remember being narrowly focused on the amount of coins she was counting), greeted us. Paul relayed his sheet of paper, proud of his perfect mathematics, and happy that it was clear enough that he wouldn’t have to make his request in broken Spanish. The teller read the paper, analyzed it, and then sighed so loudly, we almost lost our footing. She opened up her till, emptying it of all coins, then heading to the teller next to her, emptying his. It wasn’t enough. We watched her, dying of embarrassment, as the teller with the bright nails ran around the bank looking for anymore damn coins. We wanted desperately to tell her that we appreciated her efforts, that what she gave us would suffice, but our lack-of-fluentness just led to us standing there in stupid shock.
She stacked up the fistful of coins and began counting, reaching into her coat pocket twice to give us her personal collection. In the end, she couldn’t make the total exchange, so she gave us about 7,000 COP in coins and 3,000 COP back in bills. Paul was disappointed. Oh lord.
Villa de Leyva
The bus ride from Villa de Leyva was… stressful. But the kindnness of many strangers made our experiene worthwhile.
Again, relying on conflicting knowledge from the Internet as well as advice from a charismatic hostel worker, we found ourselves en route to La Paz, a very small town adjacent to Zipaquira. From La Paz, there was apparently a bus that ran directly to Villa de Leyva, about three hours north of Zipaquira. But, we could not find said bus.
The driver dropped us off on a random street in La Paz, no bus terminal anywhere. We waited for a few minutes, watching the buses that passed us, but most said they were going between Bogota and Zipaquira, not Villa de Leyva. We asked a kind couple, and they informed us that we should either go back to Bogota (south by one hour) or continue past La Paz to another small town where we would then catch a bus to Villa de Leyva.
We caught another bus to this small town, a 5-10 minute drive from La Paz. Again, we were dropped off on a random street without a bus terminal in sight. We stood there puzzled, again watching the buses go by, unsure of our next move. In that small town, two gringos with giant backpacks really stood out. So, after a few minutes of looking visibly hopeless, a restauranteer came onto the street and asked us what we needed. We told him where we were going, and he, and several others who also approached us, advised us to take a bus to Chiquinquira where we could then transfer to Villa de Leyva. The restauraunteer flagged down the next bus and told the driver where to drop us off.
We found ourselves back in La Paz, but this time the driver dropped us off near a highway, and told us to walk straight to a large building, probably.
With our backpacks strapped to us, we walked slowly down the highway, seeing nothing really worth noting. We thought we were going to a terminal, but before we arrived, an orange minibus drove up. We flagged the driver down. The bus was headed to Chiquinquira. The bus was completely full by this point, except for two seats in the front next to the driver. For two hours we watched the rolling countryside, forest-colored mountains, and vast sky around us. It was serene.
We made it to Chiquinquira. Our driver pointed us to the next bus, one headed to Tunja but would make a stop near Villa de Leyva, where we would ride the rest of the way in one final minibus. I figured this process lended itself to a couple more hours of travel, so I took the opportunity to go to the bathroom.
We stowed our backpacks in the back of the bus, and I told the driver that I was going to the bathroom. He said I had two minutes, so I sprinted to there only to realize I NEEDED MONEDAS TO PAY FOR THE BATHROOM. (As a sidenote, it turns out this was the only time we needed monedas in small towns. Thanks to Paul, we had plenty.) I raced back to the bus, grabbed a handful of coins and ran straight back to the bathroom. When I was finished, I hauled ass back to the bus. But it was gone.
Paul, my passport and money, all of my luggage. Gone. I felt my legs go numb as I turned in circles, stunned. Where did it go?
But then I heard a man whistle. I turned to see a gentleman waving for me to follow him. The bus had left the terminal, but he explained via gesticulation that we would meet the bus out front instead of in the back, and I would hop on there. We waited, and as the bus came to a stop I saw Paul standing in the doorway, waving to me. He tried to get them to stop, he explained, but it turned out the drivers had a plan, we just didn’t understand what that was yet.
The people here are incredble.
Luckily, the rest of the trip went smoothly.
Since this blog is so long, I’m just going to post some photos of the beautiful, funny Villa de Leyva. What good times.