Life as a Colombian Farmer and Exploring Southwest Colombia

This Leg of the Journey:

Life on the Finca

Today was the day. Today was the day I began my travels without Ryan. Today was the day I left all the comfort of a familiar face and language from home. The road ahead of me was wide open and what happened next was solely up to me. I would be heading to the Zona cafetera (coffee region) of Colombia to work on a family farm found on Workaway. For the previous few weeks I searched online for a farm to work on. Coffee has always been of interest to me, and what better way to learn about coffee than to go to a farm and get my hands dirty?

I woke up, excited as expected, and followed my normal morning travel routine: buy eggs from the bakery in Bogota that poured out smells of freshly baked bread and walk down the road to the spray painted shipping containers converted into vegetable stands to buy a tomato, onion, avocado, and bananas to eat for breakfast. On the walk back to the hostel I thought about the nine hour bus ride that afternoon and made a stop back at the bakery for a tamale, the big size of course, to take with.

Breakfast and packing check. It was time to go. Manny drove and we headed to the airport to drop off Ryan. After a hug goodbye and a group agreement of meeting up again in South America Manny and I took off for the bus station. Manny wished me luck and safety, I put on my leather adventure hat and backpacks (one in the front and one on the back) and headed into the bus station. Mauro, the young man I had been talking to that ran a workaway page for his dad’s farm, gave me instructions (in Spanish): “get to Pereira and take a bus from Pereira headed to Balboa. Tell the conductor to drop you in La Quiebra and walk 2km (about 1.25 miles) up the road to the farm. There are no lights on the road so do the walk during the day.”

I found a bus leaving for Pereira in half an hour, bought a ticket and sat alone in the bus station. It had already started. Here I was alone without any friends to talk to about what was next. With no one around I turned on music and ate my delicious tamale that was supposed to be my lunch/dinner later that day. I must have looked great covered in tamale with my backpacks and hat. The full size bus arrived, I boarded, found my seat, and a woman from Armenia (a neighboring coffee town to Pereira) sat next to me. The bus ride seemed to take an eternity. After nine hours, the supposed length of the whole bus ride, we pulled into Armenia and I asked my neighbor how much longer to Balboa. She replied with a smile  “As long as the drug mules don't give you a problem three hours.” Comforting words. I would be getting into Pereira at about 1:30 AM as long as the bus wasn't stopped by drug mules.

Along the ride I booked a hostel that had great reviews called Kolibri hostel, and a few hours later we pulled safely into Pereira. A short cab ride later through the empty dark city I pulled up to the hostel. The immaculate hostel was great, but I was the only person there other than the receptionist. It was strange being in a hostel with a capacity of 35 alone. That said it was one of the nicest hostels I had stayed in. As soon as I laid down my mind began to race as I thought about where I was going. All I had were messages from a guy named Mauro and directions to walk over a mile to a farm. I didn't even know which direction to walk.

After a short night´s rest I was up and walked the streets of Pereira to find food for breakfast, the usual. I gave Mauro a call on the way and he told me to get there when I could; his dad was expecting me. After a hearty breakfast and cleaning up I walked to the station, bought a ticket to Balboa, spoke to the conductor who had no clue what I wanted, and boarded. The hour and a half ride went quickly as we ascended into the mountains and I repeatedly told the driver where I wanted to go. The beautiful mountains were covered in bright green coffee plants shaded by plantain trees. Where there wasn't coffee or plantains there were rows of avocado trees. The beauty was infatuating. The driver stopped the bus at a dirt road intersection with two tiendas on opposite corners and said this is La Quiebra. With three ways to walk I stood at the intersection. Luckily a woman got off the bus behind me and asked where I wanted to go. “I'm looking for the Finca belonging to Don Francisco Vargas” I replied. She said it was far and pointed to a 1970’s blue Land Cruiser that people were piling into the back of. The people all smiled and told me to hop on the back. Right as I jumped on the rear bumper and grabbed the roof the driver hit the gas. With plantain bushels on both sides of my hands, and a young boy hanging off next to me, I gripped tightly and felt the adventure building.

We climbed the mountain and passed farm after farm. My arms and legs began to tire as I stood on the back with all of my gear. Finally, we reached a crest in the mountain and passed a sign on the right that read Alto Del Rey Municipal Park. The same woman who was on the bus with me pointed down and to the left while reassuring that we were headed the right direction. With a final stop everyone jumped out. The driver named Don Luis, who I would take multiple rides with during my time on the farm, told me it was straight down the road. As expected, there were multiple straights and splits in the road as I descended. Two dark skinned men who looked like they had a long day of work sat in a field to my right smoking. They asked what I was looking for. “Don Francisco’s Finca” I yelled back. With a slight raise of the hand the bigger one half pointed and said “Straight and left.” In Colombia I have noticed that directions are always straight ahead.

After one stop at the wrong farm, I descended one final driveway about two and a half miles from the start of the road and four dogs came barking and running aggressively towards me. An older man wearing a backwards hat with a black and grey pony tail sticking out, stained jeans, and a tucked in orange polo yelled for the dogs to shut up. He came striding over with a warm smile on his face. “Don Francisco Vargas” he said sticking out a hand. “Welcome to my farm.” After an offer of food and water, which I turned down, he introduced me to a French volunteer named Emilio who was lying in a hammock. Emilio and I talked briefly and I found out he had been on the farm for a week. Don Francisco called for me to follow him, and we walked up a set of wooden stairs in the main bamboo house. There on the floor were two mattresses across the room from each other, one for me and one for Emilio. The Don told me to get settled, asked if I needed anything, and left me to my new home for an indefinite amount of time.

The top floor of the bamboo house had a calm breeze blowing through and looked clean. Both sides of the house had balconies and pleasant views. Emilio´s side looked at a giant mandarin tree covered in ripe fruit, and mine overlooked the separate kitchen and mountains in the distance. There were a couple of things I had to do to actually get settled. First things first, I was on a farm and had a feeling there would be more bugs than I knew what to do with. I hung a bug net from the bamboo beams with green plastic twine, tucked it in around my mattress, and hung the food I keep in my backpack from the ceiling with carabiners. So far my Spanish was holding up and I hadn't spoken English since leaving Manny. With Emilio speaking French and Spanish and Don Francisco only speaking Spanish the true test was yet to come.

Settled, I walked out to the balcony and looked over while taking a deep breath. Emilio was sitting across a bridge that connected the separate bamboo and brick kitchen from the main house. Before asking Emilio for a tour around the property we got to know eachother a bit and exchanged the standard traveller questions. We walked behind the kitchen passed coffee processing equipment, through thick bamboo, trees and jungle to where the plants opened to cleared organized crops. Emilio pointed out plantains, coffee, papaya, peppers, hot peppers (the kind I had made aji picante with in Peru!), tomatoes, and bamboo. He pointed up the mountainside to where cows were grazing in the distance and let me know that everything up belonged to the Don as well. As I gazed around a smile crept over my face; this was perfect and exactly what I had been looking for.

Emilio and I walked back to the house, about 10 minutes, and sat in front of the kitchen with Don Francisco. We talked about what I would need to start a coffee company, how hard life was for coffee farmers, world events, our backgrounds, and the important fact that work started at 6:30AM every day. While we chatted the four dogs roamed around howling and scratching from their fleas. Emilio told me there was a rat in the house that chewed through his backpack and to make sure I didn't have food in my bag. Don Francisco responded by immediately cursing out the two cats who were sleeping on a kitchen counter next to their bowls of food. The warning confirmed my expectation of things crawling on the farm. Emilio and I chatted a bit more while Don Francisco went into the kitchen and cooked dinner for hours.

The sounds of sizzling oil, chopping vegetables, and incredible smells radiated from the kitchen. One of the cats woke up and sat on the counter glaring at the Don to make sure his share was remembered. Don Francisco came out with two plates of stuffed Chile relleno peppers with rice, meat and veggies. To drink he brought out a fresh fruit juice made from guayaba and maracuya. All the fruit and veggies were from the farm, and guayaba became another favorite fruit. Guayaba is yellow skinned with a pink flesh and tiny white seeds. The meal looked incredible and with the final plate brought out I received my first “buen provecho Mitchie.” We all dug in. The meal tasted as good as it looked, and from then on Don Francisco called me by a name only used by my grandmother when I was a little boy.

I woke up before my alarm and brought a bag of coffee from Bogota, my Italian mocha pot, and bleach to the kitchen to show Don Francisco. He was very curious about all the things I had in my bag. Although on a coffee farm, like most Colombians the Don drank bad coffee mixed with agua panella (sugar water) called tinto. Colombians export most of the good beans and take what's left. Don Francisco and I spent the morning in the kitchen drinking coffee. First, the coffee I made, black and strong, followed by his coffee, sweet and bitter. The two other men who worked for Don Francisco showed up and I immediately recognized them as the two men who were sitting in the field the day before. Eduardo was built like an ox, had a machete drawn across his waist, and had smoked four cigarettes by the time I finished my coffee. Wilmer, not a traditional Colombian name, was more talkative than Eduardo and was smoking something else. Emilio was the last to join and everyone drank coffee out of white aluminum bowls waiting for the clock to strike 6:30.

Just after 6:30 Wilmer told me to come with him and to grab the ladder. I held the ladder against my shoulder and Wilmer climbed straight up into the mandarin tree in front of the house. The sky began raining mandarins, and Emilio and I filled two 20 gallon buckets. Job one of the day was a breeze. Job two was a bit more of a challenge. About a half mile up the road, and I mean vertical, we entered a pasture closed in by a barbed wire fence. It felt like a movie: the two men walked in front smoking and the dogs chased to make sure we were working hard. With little explanation Wilmer instucted us to bring stacks of palo (wood) across the mountain. After walking with a few posts and throwing them over multiple sections of fence, I figured out that we would be building a new fence around an overgrown grass and plant area. It was warm but not hot in the morning. Perfect weather for hauling hundreds of pounds of wood up, down, and across a mountain.

At 8:30 we took a breakfast break. Emilio and I walked down to the house to have breakfast with Don Francisco, and Wilmer and Eduardo stayed up in the field. Sweating, I sat at the white plastic table, had a glass of water (which we had to boil from the taps), and Don Francisco put down a series of plates, bowls, and cups. Breakfast consisted of fried plantains (patacone), eggs with veggies and rice, chocolate in water with panella (Chocolate Santafereño), and a traditional fried corn disk called an arepa. Full of food and conversation, after half an hour we went back to moving wood. The heat kicked in, the weight started to stack up, and climbing between barbed wire fences took its toll as I'd regularly hear a catch and tear on my pants and shirts. As the work day was coming to a close Eduardo showed up with a horse with the biggest posts of all. With a smile he asked if we could help the horse since the mountain was too steep for the horse to walk. With a post on my shoulder I yelled that it wouldn't be a problem since I was a burro (mule); not a horse.

Close to 12:30 the guys signaled that it was lunch time which meant it was the end of the day for Emilio and me. Don Francisco had walked up to the neighboring Pasteur and was cutting weeds with his machete while the dogs ran and played on the mountain. They all had a laugh at my expense before descending the mountain for lunch. I was absolutely soaked and looked like I had jumped into a swimming pool. Before eating I took a cold shower which may have been the best cold shower I have ever taken. The entire time at the farm I never asked if there was hot water; the last thing I wanted was something hot. Lunch on the first day was maduro (ripe plantain), chicken and rice, an arepa, and maracuya juice. Don Francisco offered plenty of food and commented on my machine like work style. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing and chatting. Dinner was pasta bolognese, Emilio taught me to play dominos, and the three of us played until 9:30. That was it. That would be the foundation of my routine the next three weeks living on the farm.

Surprisingly, I didn't sleep that well that night, but there was a light soothing rain all night. Even with the mosquito net I was getting bitten up by either sand flies or fleas; it was hard to tell the difference and both were equally annoying. The 5:30am alarm sounded, we had our coffee with panella and I had another day of moving wood. Today the slope and distances we were carrying were substantially longer. About mid morning a new job was needed that was right up my alley: machete work. We needed to clear room for our new fence and I discovered a new stress relief activity. The plants scratched my arms as I swung and climbed, and my arms would continuously itch and burn at the same time for days. Breakfast was again massive and great with arepa, eggs perricos, the fattiest deep fried bacon ever, chocolate drink and fresh mandarin juice from yesterday´s work.

Afternoon work was more palo grueso (fat wood) moving followed by machete work. Now in addition to the scratches my hands were blistering from gripping for hours. The heat today was substantial and I poured sweat as I hacked away. The day seemed longer than the first as the temperatures reached the 90s with heavy humidity. We walked down the long road back to the house and I couldn't wait for my cold shower. I threw my clothes on the balcony railing to dry in the high sun and was ready for lunch! Today's specialty was a soup. Soup on a day when my face was melting; however, it was delicious and led into another relaxing afternoon.

Curiosity usually gets the best of me and that afternoon I walked to the closest pueblo, La Quiebre, to see who lived around the mountains and to recharge my phone data. Of course neither of the two tienda´s could recharge my phone because I was in the middle of nowhere, so I bought a bag full of ice cold Club Colombia Beers instead. It was Emilio's last night and I figured it would be nice. I walked the couple miles back through the mountains drinking one of my beers while considering dumping another one on my head to cool off. The sun was setting as I arrived back at the farm and we all sat around and had a cold one. Emilio wanted to go to Wilmers, about a 20 minute walk up the road, to play a game called Tejo that evening. We walked in the dark lighting up the road with our head lamps, and when we arrived Wilmer popped his head out a window in his house where he sold roadside items. He laughed as I snapped his picture and after setting the stakes of the game we began to play. Look up Tejo as it is quite entertaining and would never be accepted as a game in The States. A puck is thrown at a clay covered board with a circle in the center. Two folded pieces of paper are placed on either side of the circle and inside the papers there is gunpowder. Points are scored by getting the puck on the board, exploding a piece of paper, or getting the puck in the center. We played as teams and I proceeded with extreme caution anytime I got close to the folded paper. After a few hours, and losing, we walked home in the dark. Don francisco had not joined us, but left us a dinner of tuna salad, rice, coleslaw, and fresh cherry tomatoes we picked earlier in the day.

With Emilio leaving in the morning the rest of my time at the farm would be spent with the three Colombians. My jobs over the weeks entailed everything from finishing constructing the fence, digging a drainage ditch and fixing potholes in the road due to the winter rains, collecting plantains, collecting, processing, and sorting coffee, and caring for the cattle (my favorite cows name was Mona and we became became buddies). Each job had something unexpected and interesting that came with it, but I’ll save those stories for those who ask. Some new skills I have built offer a glimpse: avoiding large spiders and entertaining the Colombians with cursing and yelling while picking coffee, using a pick axe and shovel to break stone and build a road capable of handling SUVs and cattle herds in tropical rain, lassoing cattle for vaccination, and my favorite new workout of carrying 50-80lb bushels of plantains down a mountainside without smashing all the fruit.

The farm was an experience I will always treasure and was different than anything else I, or most people in general, had ever been exposed to. By the time I left I had become a key member of the Don’s dog pack, especially when I cared for the farm alone, and have become an expert of eating plantains and bananas. The bugs became the biggest nuisance on the farm and I changed beds and eventually ended up staying in my hammock the final two weeks. The final days on the farm were rather sad as Don Francisco and I bonded during my time. My last night I played Tejo with the guys and enjoyed the sunset. The following morning Eduardo arrived first smoking cigarettes, Wilmer smoking something else, and a final ¨hola Mitchie buenos dias” rang from the kitchen from Don Francisco. Don Francisco offered me the abundant papaya and banana that grew on the farm, we all exchanged information, snapped a picture and I began the climb up the mountain towards Balboa, a small city about 4 miles from the farm.

The climb up the road was warm with all of my gear, but I decided to walk and enjoy the final peace and views. I didn't spend much time in Balboa waiting for the bus to Salento, but managed to capture some of the great Jeeps and Land cruisers that roamed the mountainside and acted as taxi's for the residents.


I arrived in Salento for the weekend. The weather would prove to be temperamental and the rain was in full force. Walker House hostel was very clean, new and calm, but there weren’t many people. The first night in town would be spent alone even though I was anxious to see other travelers after being on a farm for three weeks. Salento was a pretty colonial town, and I walked the quiet streets only stopping to the sounds of an acoustic guitar and singing a block up. Kafe de Alma was a coffee shop/bar with enormous dripping wax candles where people sat enjoying coffee based cocktails and beers while listening to live music. Kafe de Alma ended up being one of my favorite cafes since travelling. On Saturday morning a new friend from the UK came to the hostel and we ended up doing some of the key Salento activities together: a coffee tour and hiking Valle Cocora. The coffee plantation, Ocaso, was great and I learned the back end of coffee production which I didn’t get to see on the farm. Valle Cocora was a nice walk through forest and mountains to a clearing where enormous wax palms stood. It was fun taking the classic jeeps around the countryside, crossing the many bridges leading up to the wax palms (the country tree), and seeing the expansive flora that was absent in the Peruvian mountains. Salento was a great backpacker/vacation colonial town and a pleasant stop in the Zona Cafetera. After a fun weekend, I considered returning to the farm. I missed it and the routine, but the urge to continue exploring Colombia won. I set the next destination as Cali and continued on.


The bus ride to Cali was quick, uneventful, and easy. I arrived in the afternoon and was hesitant to begin the walk to the hostel. Everything I read about Cali came to the same conclusions about the city: salsa and potential for danger. The desire to get the real feel of the city took over and I walked to the hostel, Pelican Larry. I felt the eyes more on the walk than in other cities, but then again I was wearing a giant backpack with a pot on the back and a leather hat. My attire wasn’t exactly normal for anywhere. The first order of business was to find a meal. I explored Avenida Sexta (a popular street for going out and eating), but didn´t have much luck finding a restaurant at the odd hour. I ended up at a place with no people, never a good sign, and ordered a Bandeja Paisa. It didn’t come close to the one I had near Bogota.

In addition to all the articles about how dangerous Cali is, which are overblown, salsa is synonymous with Cali. This was not exaggerated and it was incredible to see how an entire city of millions of people revolved around a style of dance. Being there I wanted to take full advantage and took several group and private classes. My first night I went to a group class and worked up a sweat before heading out for the night with some fellow travellers from the hostel. The spot to be in town was called La Topa Tolondra. The group classes didn’t help when it came to dancing with people in La Topa who moved with such ease to the upbeat fast music that played. I danced some, but spent most my of time watching the local experts. By 4am I decided enough was enough and headed home.

After a long night and 3 hours of sleep, I woke up in the morning, searched for a laundromat to clean my clothes which needed a deep cleaning from my time on the farm, and did the free walking tour through Cali. Cali is a very interesting city, but not the best city for tourists. With a deep history of sugarcane, drugs, and music I was lucky enough to get a behind the scenes look at what life was like in the city. The next few days were spent taking private salsa lessons with two dancers who run a company called Sabrosa Swing, exploring the city, and climbing to the top of Tres Cruces: a mountain that overlooks the city with three crosses, a full outdoor gym, and numerous fresh juice stands at the top. I met a local woman, Sara, while at the top one morning and we ended up spending the next few days together. Sara is an amazing videographer who had me in awe within minutes of meeting her from both her mind and beauty. We ended up going to dinner that night and during the course of the evening she took several phone calls and blew my mind as she switched between speaking Spanish, English, French, and German with ease. Living day by day, I went to Cali thinking I would spend a couple of days there; I ended up spending more than a week taking salsa lessons, going on day trips, and of course spending time with Sara.

One morning, I woke up early and decided to take a day trip to a city Northwest of Cali called San Cipriano. Avoiding taking the tours per usual, I bought a bus ticket headed to the biggest port in Colombia called Buenaventura. I spoke with the conductor who agreed to drop me off at the city entrance to San Cipriano about a two and a half hour bus ride from Cali and about half way to Buenaventura. I dozed in and out of sleep on the ride and while awake talked to a Brazilian woman who said she would wake me up if I was passed out when we got to my stop. Of course I was sleeping when we arrived, my neighbor followed through and woke me up, and I hopped off the bus on the side of a four lane highway in a light rain. I walked to three shacks at the start of a long bridge that crossed a river to a rundown town in the distance. I hoped it wasn’t San Cipriano I heard so much about. I had a feeling I was nearby where I needed to go, but I was not there yet. A group of men were in front of one of the shacks and I asked where I could buy tickets for the motobruja. It felt like they gazed down on me with their massive forms and pointed to one of the three shacks. One of the star attractions of San Cipriano is something called a motobruja. The residents of the town have retrofitted motorcycles for passengers to drive along the rail tracks into the jungle and San Cipriano.

The sky was darker than when I left the bus, and the slight mist had turned to rain. As I crossed the suspension bridge and waited at a set of train tracks for my ride, men picked up and pulled motorcycles attached to boards from the tracks. A gentleman came over and told me he would be my driver and to call him from the other end when I was ready to come back. The engineering of these contraptions was impressive and I had never seen anything like it. I swung my leg over the side, two guys hopped on behind me, and the ride down the tracks into the jungle began. The driver hit the gas and we flew. We went way faster than I thought we would and went through tunnels deep into the reserve.

Before I knew it, about 15 minutes, we pulled up to a town on the rail tracks. I hopped off and the driver of the motorcycle pointed diagonally and told me to walk in that direction. I walked through the dirt road town passed restaurants and little inns until reaching an entrance to the reserve. It was 2000 pesos to enter, but I was told I needed a guide to get to the far waterfall. Not wanting to pay for the guide and a little short on time due to a salsa class in the afternoon, I walked into the reserve alone. It was warm, but it was pretty. A dog joined me from town for the first part of the walk, but soon ran back to town as I started to explore side trails. The reserve felt like a developed park rather than the wilderness I was used to. There were side paths off the main road that I continually took, but the highlight was the crystal clear river that ran into the distance. The water was beautiful and every now and then there were little swimming holes that were marked. To my enjoyment there wasn’t anyone there yet. After walking a couple of hours I found a small waterfall where a group of students were swimming and happily lighting up the forest with sounds of joy. Although I wouldn’t make it to the main waterfall which was the reserve attraction I was happy to have made the trip.

The walk back seemed faster than the walk out, and I stopped for a shrimp empanada after reaching the town at the edge of the reserve. I returned to where I was dropped off and asked a man at the motobruja station call my driver who had gone back to the main road. While waiting the people in town, which was sparsely populated, walked passed and looked curiously. When the driver pulled up he smiled and greeted me like an old friend. This time there were several other people who joined me on my favorite new mode of transportation. A little girl sat next to me tightly gripped in her mother’s arms. Full of curiosity and attitude she studied me while flicking grasshoppers off the seat next to her and off my leg.

Although the ride out to San Cipriano was as easy as going to the bus station, I had to wave down a passing collectivo on the highway to get back. Back at the hostel I had also made friends with a couple from the UK who were leaving for Ecuador in the morning. Following my afternoon salsa class we headed out for dinner, walked around Cali, and ended the night salsaing at La Topa. After all of my classes I had more confidence, had a few steps under my belt, but still didn’t even come close to keeping up with the local women dancing. I pride myself on learning quickly, but my salsa moves need more practice and photos were intentionally omitted.

In the morning, I bid adieu to my new friends and expect our paths will cross again in the future. Speaking of crossing again in the future, Sara and I would spend the next few days going to the Cali International Film Festival, visiting Cali’s biggest market in Alameda, seeing a 20 piece latin jazz band, eating the local cuisine, and going to exhibits she knew about. After my planned couple days turned into a week I finally decided to travel a little more before heading back home for Thanksgiving.

After a final night in Cali I woke up in the morning and was still determined to go see more southwest Colombia. The Uber to the bus station with Sara and Johana, a French woman I met at the hostel who wanted to see Popayan and San Agustín which were my next two cities, was the least fun I’ve had since traveling. After a kiss goodbye Sara stepped out and I headed to the station. As usual, the bus I wanted to take was leaving in 30 minutes and another city was insight.

The bus ride was longer than it should have been for the city four hours south of Cali, but I’m used to it. The views along the way were pleasant, and Johana and I arrived in Popoyan as the sun was setting. Popyan is also known as The White City due to its colonial white architecture in the historic colonial center. The walk to our hostel, Hostel Trail, reminded me of Villa De Leyva, but Popyan was larger and busier. Being a Sunday night in Colombia the entire town was shut down except for a grocery, luckily. The hostel receptionist also let me know that Monday was a holiday and things would be slow. After doing a bit of reading I decided to hike Volcan Purace rather than stay in the shut down city. Johana said she would like to join so I cooked dinner, set an alarm for 3am and headed to bed.

I was excited about the hike, couldn't sleep and was up until about 1:00am. The alarm went off at 3:00 and I made a breakfast of papaya and banana with eggs, tomato, onion, and coffee. Johana met me in the kitchen and I packed my bag with 3L of water, bananas, oranges, cereal bars, a can of tuna, rain jacket, and my camera. In order to climb the volcano as a day trip an early start was required, and the bus was scheduled to leave at 4:30. In Colombian style, the bus didn´t leave until after 5, but the time was well spent at the bus station. While we waited, there were two other hikers I added to our group. Both Rafael from Italy who only spoke Italian and Spanish, and Rik from Holland were cool guys. They gladly agreed to sharing the required guide up the volcano. The supposed hour and forty-five minute bus ride took over two and a half hours; the bus kept overheating. The driver continually stopped by rivers to collect water to pour over the engine. Each time poured water over the engine steam would rush into the bus and fog the windows. As we drove we climbed in altitude and the temperature cooled. It was a pleasant change from the scorching heat and humidity of Cali. When we arrived we paid the entrance, met our required indigenous guide Marta, and got ready to start off. Marta immediately asked if I had more clothes since the hike was cold, and it would most likely rain. I was fine with what I was wearing and joked with Marta asking if she was ready to walk fast and keep up. A bus drove by that Marta flagged down and she hurriedly boarded us. She explained there were several routes up and luckily the bus could take us to one that she normally wouldn’t do.

The white bus with hanging green tapestries and dice on the inside dropped us and many workers off at a mine 15 minutes up the mountain. The hike would begin on a route known as La Routa del Sol. The mine was really cool with steam vents, caves, tunnels, water resovoirs, and an extraordinary stench of sulfur taking over the sky. Views were beautiful as the hike followed a main road with some side routes. Unfortunately, the fog and clouds were thick much of the time and limited visibility. Our first break was at an old abandoned police station for lunch (banana, orange, and cereal bar for me). The other group members, besides Rafael, commented on the difficulty of the hike, but it wasn´t affecting me. We were climbing near 4000 feet to the crater at 15,500 feet, and I was surprised that my body was still acclimated. The temperature began to drop, and more fog rolled in covering everything, including the volcano, which was no longer visible in the distance. The ascent following the police station was much steeper and covered in mud. Marta described the frigid temperatures that could cause limb loss at the top: around 0C or 32F. I laughed and explained that in Chicago we prayed for those temperatures during the winter.

While climbing, an Andean condor came closer than any I had previously seen. The massive bird swooped up and back gracefully, but no picture could do the world’s largest flying bird justice. Eventually, Rafael and I went ahead of the group and decided to hike to the crater. The wind picked up the higher we climbed, and the combination with the fog and mist felt much colder than 32F. The final ascent was along fine volcanic rock, and we made it to the crater. Rafael and I couldn't see anything. We sat and waited behind a rock at the peak for about 45 minutes for the rest of the group. After some fun pictures, I ran ahead to warm up and descended the volcano in a hurry. Thirty minutes after we all reached the bottom, we looked back to see the sun high in the sky. All the fog and clouds burned off leaving a beautiful view of the volcano. Marta let us know that the last bus out of town was at 2:30 PM, and we were going to cut it close. At 1:45 Marta and I started running through muddied trails over rocks trying to make it back. We made it to where there was a guide house that had an awesome Land Cruiser out front. Of course, I would take that and one of the guides asked me to hop on the back of his motorcycle the rest of the way down the mountain. I hopped on and rode to the bottom arriving at 2:27. The bus hadn't arrived yet. Everyone came down the mountain and we sat and waited: 3:00pm, 4:00pm, the bus never came.

(Photo Credit Rik Reijnders) 

(Photo Credit Rik Reijnders)

The more I questioned where the bus was the more confused the situation became. Finally, our guide who stayed with us the whole time found out there was a bus at 4:30 from the mine to the neighboring town of Purace where we could find a collectivo. The bus came right as it started to rain and more clouds rolled in. We met two sisters from Cali and a man from Bogota who were in the same situation we were. We waited in Purace as a group while a women at a bakery called around to see if anyone could get a group of seven back to Popoyan. A silver truck pulled up, the girls got up front and I got in the back with the other guys and several other Colombian men. The right back of the trailer was left open and it poured rain as we drove back to Popoyan. The trailer leaked, and all of us stood in a rectangle around the back. I felt like I was getting ready for a border run, but sure enough we made it back, I cooked dinner and headed quickly to bed.

In the morning I decided to hike up to the mirador overlooking Popyan with my rommate. It was fun but the view left a little something to be desired. After walking around Popyan I decided to head to San Agustin and would have company again: Johana and a new friend Rebecca from Canada. We enjoyed the local specialty, empanadas made with peanut butter (pipian) and headed to the bus station.

San Agustin
The Ride to San Agustin was very rough and near six hours. We were in a van rather than a bus this time. Rebecca was just starting her journey, and we listened to music on my Spotify as we drove through the incredible mountains. At a road stop two English people sitting in the back of the van came over and we found out Rebecca, the two of them, and I were all staying at the same hostel, Casa de Nelly. Johana would be staying at a different hostel on her own. We arrived in San Agustín in the evening and had dinner as a group of four before sharing a cab to the hostel. The hostel was incredible in the hills above San Agustín.

I woke up to rain which was a bit of a problem since San Agustín is known for its outdoor archaeological parks. Although I wanted to follow the hostel dog's lead and lay in front of the fire, I convinced everyone to walk with me to the main park. The park was laid out through partially excavated forest and had statues everywhere. The best part of the park was that the integrity of the landscape was kept intact and the statues were left in their original environment. After the park, I felt as if I’d seen enough statues and walked into town to have lunch and explore. San Agustín was pretty, but I decided to leave in the morning and head back to Cali for various reasons. Back at the hostel everyone was social, and we played chess and backgammon for hours switching between languages so everyone could understand the conversation.

Back to Cali
I was happy to be headed back to Cali in the morning but knew I had a long day ahead of me. The van to Popoyan was small, and I struck up a conversation with a man named Orlando who lived in Cali and was also a bus driver. My luck with busses and vans continued, and while we were talking the van broke down. There we were on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with a broken hose. I had duct tape in my pack so I dug it out, they taped the hose, refilled the fluid and we hit the road again. Major problems averted. Orlando and I continued our conversation and covered US and Colombian politics. Everyone in the van was thrilled to join in and discuss my experience working on the farm. One of my favorite parts about spending more time in South America is the ability to converse with people in Spanish. I have been taking every opportunity I can.

The six hour ride was no more fun on the way back to Popyan as it was on the way out. I changed to a full size bus in Popayan and bought a quarter chicken in a brown paper bag. The bus ride to Cali was long and over 4.5 more hours. Sara joined me for dinner and invited me to Pance, a Pueblo just southwest of Cali where she had a cabin. Things in Cali were good, but my deadline to catch a flight back to The States was approaching quickly.

I woke up late, wrote, and had lunch with with two hostel employees who had become friends after my week plus stay. Sara and I took a city bus to a town called Voignre, but had a five mile walk to the hills of Pance. The walk was peaceful along the edge of a national park, and the mountains in the distance were green with the frequent rain and mist. When we walked up to the house at night it was a secluded dream. The lights of Cali lit the sky up in the distance, and the calming sound of the rushing river constantly reminded me where I was.

The morning came too soon, and we spent hours relaxing by the river before leaving. I had to catch a flight departing at 4am the following day out of Medellín. We slowly left the house and walked down the road we walked up in darkness the night before. This time we had views and a couple dogs to keep us company. We were able to catch a bus after a few miles and took it the rest of the way back to Cali. After we ate dinner, I decided to stay one more night and take a morning bus to Medellín. Why not push it and make an adventure out of making the flight? After a second ride to the bus station together and another goodbye, I took what ended up being a 14 hour bus ride to Medellín (no real adventures other than a police search), pulled an all nighter to make my flight, and counted the days until my adventure would continue with a return ticket to Medellín.


  1. Just terrific....I know someone who would love to have those dogs...sorry Mona.

    I think I could do the Volcano next time.

    Love you



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