WT adventurer Ben Wolan shares stories, recollections, and images from his odyssey through South America. Join Ben’s explorations from the top of the continent to the bottom.
The people in Colombia are probably the friendliest I’ve encountered in my travels and I’ve been a lot of places where the people were really friendly. Maybe it’s because tourism isn’t rampant here, or perhaps it’s because people are eager to shed their reputation as a violent country. Or, maybe, it is just a genuinely friendly culture. Regardless the reason, we befriended taxi drivers, hotel owners, rich businessmen, students, and even a National Police Officer. Which seems like a good place to start talking about how much we enjoyed this country. Walking through Villa de Leyva, with its abundance of bakery smells, whitewashed buildings, red-tiled rooftops, and friendly farmers pulling mules carrying fresh-picked fruits, instantly put us at ease. In contrast to Villa de Leyva and the cool mountainous areas, is Cartegena, on the Caribbean coast. Hot and sticky, chaotic, but somehow laid back, Cartegena is everything you want in a colonial Caribbean ciudad. The old part of the city is enclosed by walls meant to keep out pirates, Spanish, and other unsavory elements, all of which made it in any way, but never quite conquered the city. The streets maze around with three-story buildings showing off their bright colors. Intricate wooden balconies lean over the narrow streets, their viney plants hang, waving in the merciful breeze. You want to resent the horse-drawn carriages moving tourists around the centro, but they just make it all the more quaint. We ate fruit at every meal, ceviche, grilled local fish with sweet coconut-tinged rice, and drank mojitos and cold beer from vendors selling cans on the street. There are women everywhere balancing fruit on their heads, smartly dressed shoes shiners, and young men hacking up coconuts for you to enjoy on the street. In Cartagena, your pace changes down a beat. Your first sign of this is the stray dogs. Anyone who has traveled to anywhere beyond Europe knows that stray dogs are as much a part of the local population as people selling suspect meat on a stick. But Cartegena, hands down, has the laziest stray dogs I’ve ever seen.
Once you leave one country for the next, you realize you had actually gotten used to being there: the customs, the food, the daily dealings. It’s a really good feeling actually, this place that was so foreign to begin with has become a part of you. And so it was with this bittersweet feeling that we left Colombia for Peru. Once we got our bearings and began to adjust to the altitude, we were struck with the same feeling that most people get when they are in Cusco: this is an amazing and special place. People often use the word “magical” and that would be pretty accurate. You can wander around Cusco all day, in and out of narrow alleys, stopping in peaceful little plaza squares with churches. You might stop somewhere for a Coca tea or find yourself holding a baby llama.
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, and a good one at that. The highlight of the city was the Convento Santa Teresa, a walled city within the city, used only by very strict, very pious, and very lonely nuns. The beautiful mini-neighborhood had deep red and bright blue stucco walls with Spanish tile rooftops. Built in the late 16th century, the Convent housed girls who became nuns. They were mostly from the upper class and always the second-born daughters. Also very interesting was the museum housing the remains of a frozen Incan child sacrifice, strangely dubbed ¨Juanita the Ice Princess.¨ Despite the silly name this is truly a unique piece of Incan culture. The highest form of offering from the Incans to the Gods of the Mountains was the sacrifice of a young virginal girl. ¨Juanita¨ was one of many children sacrificed on mountaintops by the Incas, but what makes her special is that she was frozen and preserved for over 500 years before she was found. So this was not a skeleton or a mummy, but a frozen preserved Incan girl on display. It was both interesting and terrifying, to say the least.
With the cities of Salta and Jujuy behind us, we began to climb into Argentina’s high desert canyon. The canyon was very wide and the mountains flanking us began to grow in size. The mountainsides began to show the sporadic growth of cactus, still pretty sparse, but as we drove north the cactus became a nice, dense, 5 o’clock shadow, dark whiskers against the pale mountainside. As the cactus thinned out again, the colors of the rock changed from the khaki of ’90s casual Friday financial district fame to the reds, pinks, and oranges of some wayward hippie’s pants. Despite the arid and rocky terrain the valley floor was a green string of trees, following the winding path of the river. There was something familiar about this experience, road tripping through a desert landscape, dotted with cacti. It was very American feeling, until you were reminded of where you were— churches springing out of nowhere, indigenous women with their brightly colored shawls, farmers with mule-drawn carts. The scenery was wide open and beautiful, the sporadic dusty little towns asleep during the hot afternoon siestas.
After enjoying the high desert landscape of the Northwest—red, brown, orange, white, dry, rocky, and stark—we moved to Bariloche and the Lake District, a lush green mountain forest, bright yellow flowers everywhere, with huge cobalt jewel lakes dominating the landscape. It was a satisfying contrast— the green and blue never felt so good. Bariloche sits on the massive Lago Nahuel Huapi which was reminiscent of Lake Tahoe, but with a Swiss town feel. There are chocolate shops every ten feet as you walk down the main street, and finally, great beer! We also found what has been the best steaks we have had in Argentina at Boliche de Alberto, where you could order the off-menu Ojo de Bife (Ribeye) from the meat man himself, and get it perfectly medium-rare off the wood-fired grill (we went twice). We were a little sad to leave the Lake District, it was beauty everywhere you turned and a relaxing, ritzy mountain resort vibe. We felt pretty far away from the rest of the South America we had seen, and it was hard to believe this was the same continent as the Incan ruins of Peru and Caribbean coast of Colombia.
You travel to experience new things, to open your mind up a little bit more, and also to appreciate the things about home that you fail to notice when caught in the flow of everyday life. We did all of these things and had a lot of fun in the process.