The best start yet

Our first view of Juntas, a local tourist stop, just north of Ibague, but easily accessible by bus. It’s just one road with houses and businesses on each side. But they have some good restaurants, a school and a community building.

2/10/2018 Saturday

Just can’t say how very relieved I am to be here in Colombia. Feels like I’ve been unsettled for the last year. Maybe two. It’s like I’ve come (almost) home. Sure, there’s lots I don’t know about the culture and I’m horrible at the language, but it feels like that’s going to work out if I just stick with it. It’s like finally being able to exhale. I hope this continues.

2/14/2018 Wednesday (Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday)

Without a doubt, this has been the best start in a country yet. The school seems pretty solid. They have very fair teaching materials and facilities. They don’t supervise much, nor is there a lot of paperwork. They schedule me and I’m on my own. The school is living up to their promises, but they didn’t really make many. At this point, I would have been afraid to depend on any school. They didn’t pick me up at the airport. I didn’t expect them to help with communications or exchanging money. I found a place to live without them, though they helped arrange temporary housing. I like this city and the Colombian culture. I’m close to the services I need and can walk to school. I can easily eat on the street, but I also can get supplies to cook. The other teachers are fantastic. My roommate is great. The apartment is basic, but functional—kitchen, laundry area and we’ve been told they are getting us a larger fridge. I like my students. The public transportation is buses and taxis. I’m still figuring out the first, but they seem to cover the city and even the nearby towns. The latter are not too pricey.

But mostly, I’m just thrilled that no one has lied to me since I arrived. I’m grateful for small favors. And very grateful I bailed on Bolivia and took a chance on Colombia. It wasn’t a country on my radar, really. The name was synonymous with “danger” and drug cartels when I was growing up. Things have changed for the better.

Meeting up at the hostel: Amy, Rod, me and Kevin. We are now all fast friends.

Sunday, I got a Facebook text from Rod, a guy I met four years ago while hiking the Appalachian Trail. He, his wife, Amy (who is now my unofficial sister) and a bilingual friend, Kevin, are on a South American tour and just happened to be spending a few days in Ibague! What a thrill for me! I had the best time with the three of them. It’s so nice to spend time with folks who not only love to travel, but have a penchant for doing it frugally, as I do. They just happened to stay in the same hostel I did when I arrived, so even finding them was easy. They mostly travel by bus or on foot and eat the local cuisine, including street food. It saves a lot of money and allows you to have an authentic experience, getting an idea of how life is for the locals.

Juntas, a town north of Ibague, that the four of us visited Sunday.

A big bonus was having Kevin along, since he could serve as interpreter. While my Spanish is getting better, I often don’t have the vocabulary to ask or understand much more than the basics. Kevin learned Spanish in The Peace Corps during the 1970’s and worked in Venezuela. (The Peace Corps no longer teachers Spanish, though they typically teach other languages to recruits. I suspect they can now find enough Spanish speakers.) Kevin still has land in Venezuela and lives part of the year there. His children live in Costa Rica. Kevin is hilarious and has more stories than I do–which is really saying something!

After Rod’s text, I grabbed a cab and went to meet them. We started with no real plan, but eventually jumped on bus #48 for a 45-minute ride north to Juntas (“junta” means “together.” It’s a town built where two rivers join.) The village is on the edge of the Parque Nacional Los Nevados, part of the Andean chain of mountains. Nevados are snowcapped mountains, which may give you an idea of how high they are. There’s a lot of rock climbing available, a ski-lift (that wasn’t working), some thermal pools (there are active volcanoes nearby!) and a mirador—a look out point—that almost anyone can climb. We also had a great lunch.

This is the view from the restaurant as we waited for food. Notice the tree with birds, lower center left. Those are a black headed vulture and they were everywhere. Who died?
The river is called Combeima, so this sign says “Welcome to the Canyon of the Combeima River.” There were small playgrounds for children and a basketball court.
Just to give you an idea of prices. This is a “relatively” expensive restaurant compared to my neighborhood. $1US dollar = $2830 Colombian Pesos. We had the “parrillada” which is a grilled meat plate–chicken leg, deep fried pork skin, beef rib, potato, sausages (rellena just means “stuffed” so we weren’t sure, but we got a pork sausage and a blood sausage with rice), avocado and chimichurri (sauce). TASTY!
Kevin can charm ANYONE and this woman was quite delighted with him. Here, he’s asking about the various sweets she sells. On the way down, we bought some.
These men were playing a game similar to horseshoes, but with a twist. They are tossing a metallic stone and trying to hit a large blasting cap (similar to the caps my little brothers used to use in there cap guns as children, but way larger). It’s LOUD when they strike and you can smell the gunpowder.
Wasn’t sure what this building was, nor if it’s under construction or falling down. Anyone?
You can rent horses to go up the mountain. It’s probably a good way to see the waterfalls.
This restaurant advertised trout, but also a local freshwater fish, seen drying here.
Jaguar, extreme ecotourism. Hummmmm. This is on the edge of town. From here, you can walk up to the Mirador or down to some very cold swimming pools. The water comes from melting ice. There are also thermal pools, but it’s a bit of a hike.
The town of Juntas

The view from the top.

It was quite a climb, so we rewarded ourselves with dulces (sweets). Amy is clearly excited. Me, too!
This restaurant will rent out the small cabins above for about $70,000 pesos a night, less than $25US. Of course, that’s a lot of money, here. My half of the apartment is only $350,000 pesos (all utilities included, even internet) for a month.
Kids love their photo taken, in any language.

While in Juntas, Kevin—who has clearly never met a stranger in his entire life—got to talking with this young man, Jorge, who is a local guide. The guide is interested in learning English and offered to take us from his home in Villa Restrepo (still north of Ibague, just before Juntas) up the mountain to a farm where we could have lunch. His services were free, just for the opportunity to practice a little English! It was quite a climb up, but the views were amazing. Lunch was great—roast chicken with rice, fresh yogurt, a tomato and onion salad, and the best fresh squeezed lemonade you could ask for.

The next day, I brought buñuelos to add to breakfast at the hostel. A buñuelo is basically just fried dough, but it’s a popular snack in much of South America. Sometimes they have a filling, like cheese, but these were just plain.
While we wait for the bus in Ibague, Kevin and Amy investigate this small park, with a statue of Simon Bolivar.
The sign on the statue reads “Remember the passage of the Liberator (Bolivar), January 8, 1830.”
We meet our guide, Jorge, in Restrepo. He’s telling Kevin what we will do that day. The village of Restrepo is small, but hopes to become more of a tourist destination.

The community has hydroelectric power.
Once we cross the river, it’s time to climb.
Rod, Amy and (especially) Jorge could really take the hills! I am terribly slow on uphill walking and was almost always dead last. Rod had to keep stopping to wait for me.
This is a small one, but there are many waterfalls to see.
Once we started climbing the narrow dirt path, the views became spectacular. This is a combination of national park land (with 4 snow-capped mountains) and private farms.
This is an organic farm, growing a type of passion fruit. they were shielding the vines with plastic to protect them from some spraying that was going on nearby. The farmer gave us several ripe fruits. So tasty!
This is a bad photo, but we saw a lot of coffee here. It must be tough to pick on the mountain slopes and even tougher to get it to market.
We climbed a substantial amount. My legs were tired. Below, the blue house is the governor’s.

Still climbing. Jorge kept saying we were “cerca” or close to the end. We clearly had a different idea of what is nearby. He said that and we probably continued on, straight up, for another 3-4km.

OK, mostly I was stopping to catch my breath by this point. But the views were wonderful.
When we got to the top, FINALLY, I thought we were done. We weren’t. But at least the climbing was over. The top had a couple farm houses and a one room school.
You have to have strong legs to farm around here. We saw the remains of what could have been terraced fields, but mostly there were vines (especially a type of flowering bean). coffee, and some fruit trees.
Jorge found several orchids growing wild. These would be expensive house plants. There’s also lots of impatients growing wild, too.

This farm was lovely! There were constant cool breezes and the house is really set up for it. Even the kitchen is very open, but under the protection of a second-story balcony from above.
Rod, Amy, me, the farmer who owns the hostel and Kevin.
Our guide, Jorge, is very musical. He not only played the flute, he plays piano. His nickname is El Conejo–The Rabbit, but he’s more of a monkey, the way he climbs trees and mountains.
Lunch! Chicken, potatoes, rice and tomatoes with onions. YUM! The black pottery is very common to this area.
The cows make it peaceful. And the milk and yogurt is always fresh.
The view from the balcony. There are several rooms on the second floor that you can rent. Most have a single and a double bed. There’s a shared bath and shower, plus lots of hammocks for lounging.
After lunch, we each got a hammock and took a little nap. I talked to Amy the entire time.

I can’t say how much I enjoyed my time with them.

About 6pm on Monday, I got a text from the school asking me to teach the next morning! Fortunately, I had the book for the class already, so I could prepare before I went to sleep. Class went well and I feel I’m really fitting in here.

Just a few more photos from the top of the mountain.

View from the farm to the Village of El Restrepo below
You can just see the waterfall in the upper center on the next mountain across. Those clouds have been a permanent fixture since I arrived, so I’d guess the mountains get a lot of rain this time of year. I live at a much lower elevation and have had some rain, but not constant.

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I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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