Into Ecuador – marking milestones and a new mindset for a new hemisphere

After one last hurrah in Colombia at Las Lajas Sanctuary near the border, we finally got our butts into Ecuador. We loved Colombia, but we were both ready to move on.

Our first stop was just outside of Otavalo at Rose Cottage. We were excited to visit the famous Otavalo market and stock up on some cozy alpaca things. At the end of our market visit and months of searching, we finally found a handheld orange juicer. The market had such good produce that we stocked up on some things including two bags of oranges and a bag of young potatoes. It would be OJ, coffee and potatoes each day for a week.

I’ve been following SeventeenBySix (two journalists and one euro van) for months because of their quality stories and documented camping spots. They’ve been in Ecuador for a while getting their van repaired, so we finally caught up with them. They were kind enough to let us stay in their apartment in Quito which is quickly becoming an overlander stopover. It wasn’t too long before Marcia and Doug (1/3 of Southern Tip Trip) rolled in to join us.

With a city base, we explored Quito and visited the long anticipated equator.

We don’t need someone to tell us we’ve come along way because our memories take care of that. It is sometimes nice to snap a pic that sums up in a shot just how far you’ve come though. We’ve hit the arctic circle, the arctric ocean, the 45th parallel, and finally yesterday the equator.

Moving into South America and the southern hemisphere has given us a chance to reset and reevaluate. What has really hit home the last couple of days is our constant rushing based on our preset end date. A year might seem like a long time, but tip to tip is a long way to go and all the good stuff is in the details. Yesterday, I started proclaiming ‘f$%k our end date, i’m sick of rushing’. Each proclamation got a little louder. Maybe I was trying to convince myself. We have a self imposed schedule primarily to ensure we don’t loose touch with our very fast moving industry. Now, what I hope and what I’m trying to believe is that I wasn’t employed because I was up to speed with all the new shinny things in the tech industry. I was employed because I got things done. So, maybe we’ll be back in the states by February and maybe we won’t, but this trip is not worth doing if you don’t get to stop and smell the coffee.


Cali: a lesson in negotiation

We planned to stop through Cali for a couple of reasons. Our friend Joelle is a Cali native and there were spare parts for our tent waiting for us there. The World Games happened to be taking place while we were there, and George had his mind set on watching the speed climbing.  What is speed climbing you ask? Well, to sum it up, climbers race up  sport climbing routes. Imagine what it would look like if a big cat decided to go vertical up a wall and you’ve just about got it. In his former life, George competed in speed climbing in Bulgaria. The sport is not popular in North America, but certainly has a big following in Europe and Asia. We didn’t have tickets and had heard that the speed climbing was sold out. Luckily, Joelle is a skilled and persistent negotiator. Her cute smile didn’t hurt either. Fast forward an hour or so of haggling and we were in.


Colombia’s grueling roads, toyota tacoma brakes, and lots of toys

Somewhere in Colombia’s coffee country, that familiar sound of worn out brakes started squealing away in the background as we drove. We decided to deal with the problem of finding new toyota tacoma brakes when we got back to Bogota for the third time to pick up my passport (no, we did not optimize our time in Colombia). George removed the pegs that make the noise as a temporary bandage to save our sanity.

As we drove over 4000 meter mountain peaks to Bogota, I tried to block out the state of our front brakes. We were unsuccessful buying brakes at any of the Toyota dealerships in the big B. They simply ‘do not have Tacoma specific parts in Colombia’. ‘We can have them for you in one month’, they said. Hard to believe because Toyota Tacoma parts are almost identical to 4Runner models. They have 4Runners in Colombia as well as the similar Toyota Hilux (what the Tacoma is called everywhere else).  It seemed like the guys behind the counter did not want to use their heads and work with us.

On the way out of town for the last time, we swung by the Pasion 4X4 Adventura store that George had seen one day driving along the highway.  We stopped in search of new back shocks. The parking area in front of Pasion 4X4 Adventura was full of big toys (off-roading vehicles), a good sign.

Pasion 4X4 Adventura

Pasion 4X4 Adventura

Pasion 4X4 Adventura didn’t have the shocks we were looking for, but they had  Samuel Olarte and Jose Luis, two of the friendliest guys we have met on our trip so far!  Both Jose and Samuel spoke great English and were both Toyota off-road junkies :).  Jose had a Toyota Land Cruiser 1998 (I might be 2 years off on the model) and Samuel had the Toy monster featured below :).

The toys in the parking lot

Samuel and his Toy…

The guys quickly offered to help (Jose, Samuel you are welcome to come visit in the states anytime you want!). Jose offered to take George over to the auto parts area of town. It would have been ill advised for us to go it alone because chances were good we would get ripped off. Samuel offered the use of the store’s facilities for free to lift the car and take the old brakes as a model to make sure we bought the right part.  And now a technical interlude from George since a little clarification is in order:

We had to take both front wheels off at the same time thanks to the hack (literally) the last mechanics in Nicaragua made.  If you remember from this post, those  ‘mechanics’ put both outside pads on one wheel and when they got to the other wheel they had to modify (cut) the one pad since one of them did not fit. We had to take one pad from both wheels to make a full set!  Thank you Leon – we will never forget you.

Miraculously, George returned with a set of good brakes and another set just in case. One set was dubbed ‘original Toyo’ parts and one set was a Chinese knockoff.  You could tell by the difference in price – $90 and $25. George had decided to buy a spare set just in case since the knockoffs were so cheap

New brake pads were great news because the next possible place to find brakes would have meant many more miles of mountain roads.  The pieces of s$%t the mechanics in Nicaragua installed were completely done.  Did I mention those brake pads lasted only 3000 miles.

At the end of the day, we had new brakes and a opportunity to speak with Samuel and Jose. Man, it’s nice when you desperately need something and in walks some off-roading guardian angels to assist.

Replacing our Toyota Tacoma 2003 brakes

Replacing our Toyota Tacoma brakes

Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

The moment I read about Colombia’s coffee triangle (Pereira, Manizales and Armenia), I was fixated on a visit. Delicious coffee, rolling hills, perfect comfortable temperature – check, check and check. Following fellow overlanders advice (LifeRemotely and SeventeenBySix), we decided to visit Hacienda Venecia just south of Manizales and  La Serrana in Salento, a little outside of Armenia.

Hacienda Venecia

I thought I had died and gone to heaven when we arrived at Venecia (northern point of the coffee triangle). Jorge greeted us in the parking lot with a smile and hand shake. He gave us the grand tour of the hostel which included a pool, ample common space, spotless bathrooms and a large well stocked kitchen. George and I nearly fell over when he showed us the professional espresso maker and told us coffee was free. FREE. He then proceeded to give us a demo. Trumpets sounded in the background.


Venecia is a large award winning coffee farm, so G and I decided to take the coffee tour. The tour was extremely educational, if not a little mind bending. My takeaway are as follows:

  • Colombia can harvest at least twice at year, because they have two wet and two dry seasons which means fresher coffee.
  • Colombia only exports the good stuff. This is controlled by a central organization to protect Colombia’s coffee brand.
  • See last point.  Because the good stuff leaves, Colombia’s coffee culture is what you might expect. Colombians prefer their coffee very sweet to mask the bitterness.
  • Coffee roasting is complex (countless scents and flavors), so I’ve opted to just enjoy the final product.


With more time, we would have taking advantage of the close proximity to Los Nevados National Park – yet another reason to visit the area.

Salento and Hostel La Serrana

Knowing we had to keep moving, we pulled the espresso IVs out of our arms and headed south to Salento and Hostel La Serrana (southern end of the coffee triangle). Salento is another small colonial town getting popular with foreigners for it’s easy access to Valle de Cocora.


The first thing we set eyes on pulling into La Serrana was Vida’s doppelgänger, a Land Cruiser with the same tent owned by a Dutch couple. La Serrana is a nice big hostel with great views and lots of space, but without fail it is jammed packed. It is a growing trend for hostels like La Serrana to offer volunteer programs in exchange for food and lodging. Gardening was one of the volunteer jobs offered there.


We hiked into Valle de Cocora (known for the sky high wax palms) the following day. It is a loop hike that takes you past farms and then through forests while you crisscross a river. Be prepared for mud. This is followed by plenty of switchbacks as you climb. Do not fret though, the good stuff soon begins. At the top, there is a nice little area with benches to have a snack. It is then time to hike down through the valley. The wax palm soldiers stand at attention in greeting.  All-in-all, a pretty easy and pretty beautiful hike. If you’re feeling lazy, don’t do the loop. Hike in the opposite direction and skip the river bit.


I could have easily killed a week or two in Colombia’s coffee triangle. The coffee is just the beginning. There are plenty of ways to explore nature and appreciate your surroundings.