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Our adventure to the real Valle de Cocora

There’s so much beauty to see in Colombia and on top of that the people we met were fantastic.  cocora-7

Off to the coffee plantation with our great friends, Bernardo and Krystina.  First of all, I would like to thank Christian, one who can’t stand the smell of coffee for doing a tour with me here.  I looked online to find a tour and with some luck I found one outside the cutest town, Salento at the base of the Valle de Cocora.  We took the tour and a million pictures to capture the moment of sipping this fine cafe in the coolest cup.  (The cup made many appearances in the show Narcos, so it had to be genuine.)  Here are some pictures of the cafeteros(coffee plantation towns) and Valle de Cocora.

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Salento, Colombia

While we were in and out of the cafetero towns we slept at a cafe/rest stop in the middle of the highway for five nights.  They had wifi and clean bathrooms, which has a huge appeal these days.  We spent a day visiting the town Salento that sits just above the Valle de Cocora.  Later that evening a local shared invaluable information about a road behind his restaurant that would take us from Salento to a town called Toche.  The drive between the two towns is untouched and has an exuberant amount of Cocora wax palm trees, the tallest palm trees in the world.  The touristy Valle de Cocora had nothing on the amount trees we saw on this drive, for miles it’s all one could see.  It would take us about a week to go thirty-five miles through this portion of the Andes Mountains over a gravel road, the views are out of this world.  We went camping for a night in the touristy portion of Valle de Cocora and hiked through it the next day.

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Our beautiful drive through farms, mountains and the Cocora palms
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Colombian jungle
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You can not beat a drive like this

The next morning we stocked up on food, water and essentials for a new adventure to find where all the real wax palms lived.  The road was not in our GPS so really we were just going off of what this stranger told us almost blindly.  We were with our friends and traveling as two vehicles feels safer and gave us all the confidence to do it.    The first day we got a late start and probably only made it seven miles where we found some space off the side of the road to camp for the night.  We parked over tons of wood, made a huge fire after dinner and tried to come up with ghost stories.  It was pitch black out, no one around for miles and then in the trees behind a vehicle we heard a woman’s voice.  Everyone jumped and we all turned on our bright LED lights, Christian of course grabbed the machete.  I told them “I know I heard it from inside their camper.”  So Bernardo took an axe and went in to investigate.  “AHHHH, I mean Oh it’s the bluetooth speaker turning off.”  The ghost stories seized right there.

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Rickety-shoddy bridges make me nervous

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Local Colombian Farmer explaining who knows what

We all got up pretty early the next morning so we could make the long trek to reach this minute town called Toche.  When we arrived we asked the local store attendant where we could camp and sleep for the night.  He invited us to stay on to his farm that was next to a river.  It was perfect for us, other than when he wakes up for work he blasts dance music at 5:30am like his is dj’ing for a wedding.  The guys went trout fishing in the river and chased after the farmer’s chickens with a bow and arrow around the farm.  It couldn’t have been more relaxing, so we stayed for three nights.  Relaxing eventually gets one restless so we figured lets head up to the Volcano and check out the hot springs here.  The four of us piled into The Globe Trol up a mountain and over the worst road ever we went.  We spent the day hiking and after we tried to relax with a dip into an odd concrete thermal pool off the side of the road.   The goal is to always make it to camp before sunset, it was about that time.  Sunset was on our heels so we piled back into The Globetrol and down the gravel road we bounced until I asked Christian to pull over.  I thought our friend’s dog was acting weird and possibly needed to go to the bathroom.  We hopped back into the van, immediately Christian noticed the check engine light was on and the oil pressure dropped to nothing.  He ripped the keys out of the ignition parked us in the middle of a one lane road on a mountain.  Our oil pan had met a piercing rock and every drop of oil lead to a trail up the road to the culprit.

We were stuck; miles from the country’s smallest town, in the dark and blocking the road.  Christian waited hours for the engine and oil pan to cool before he tried to repair it enough for us to make it to the closest farm.   The plan was Christian was going to try and seal the oil pan with silicone and put our old oil that we just so happened to be lugging around with us, back into the van.  Then he could drive the van just to the closest farm and park it for the night to wait for morning and make a new plan.  Krystina stayed with Christian in case he needed any help with speaking spanish to a nearby neighbor. The father of the family took Bernardo and myself on his tiny motorcycle back to their vehicle parked at the farm near the town.  Bernardo and I were going to brake down camp by the river in the dark and bring their camper up to where The Globe Trol was.  This all played out until we woke up the next morning and Krystina and Bernardo had a flat, so we had another farmland repair on the spot.  The silicone held up throughout the night, the guys fixed the flat and off we went.  If Christian would have waited another ten seconds to turn off the vehicle, our engine would have seized up and it would have been the end of this adventure.

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Through the Valle de Cocora
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No one was injured during this bright idea

Panamá

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A hike up a hill in a jungle within the city, can you even believe this is what Panama City looks like?

 

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Our first night in Panama

We found free camping for our first week in Panama right on the beach.  It was hot, but there was a consistent breeze from the ocean.  A bit of rain everyday also would cool off our day and night.  Our second night in Panama we met a traveler from Argentina who helped us find someone to share a container to ship our vehicle over to South America.  This was weeks before we thought we would find someone to share a container with.  We figured if it was going to workout this quickly that we should go with the flow.  It was working out so smoothly and quickly that I started to second guess this process.  For as long as we had planned on this trip we were ready for the biggest headache yet, shipping our vehicle across the Darien Gap.  You drive your vehicle four hours from Panama City to Colon, Panama a massive port city, pray all of your paperwork is in order and kiss it goodbye.  For a week we crossed our fingers that we would reunite with The Globe Trol in Cartagena, Colombia, South America.

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Off to the end of the road on the North American continent

So if we only had two weeks before leaving North America we should probably drive to end of the road, just to say “we did it!”  It was a long and kind of boring drive to get to the end, long as in six hours of nada.  Yaviza is a dinky town where the Pan-American Highway ends and turns into a scary jungle by foot.  Very few people on this planet have attempted to reach Colombia this way and even fewer have lived to tell the story.  We choose the path that was a road and a few have traveled for a picture next to a sign.  After this tiny side trip we headed back to Panama City to start our paperwork to ship the van to Colombia, South America.  We found a free spot on a road between a soccer field and the beginning of the Panama Canal on the Pacific Ocean side.  At night from our van we could see the lights of large container ships heading towards the Miraflores Locks.  pan-8

We hopped on a city tour bus for a ride around the city and to quickly see as many Panamanian places as possible.  Top of our list was the Panama Canal Locks, the city and old town.  I dedicate this portion of my trip to my dad and my brother…The Panama Canal. From the point where you see the barges lining up until the third set of locks releases the barge is about forty minuets.

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barges lining up, at the bottom of the picture is the one of three locks
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and down she goes
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the second one arrives

You can see these tiny little locomotives pulling the barge by chain towards the first set of locks.

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and she gone

There’s two lanes here and the first orange ship is released beyond the third lock wall after forty mins and off to the Pacific Ocean.

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sinking, this part of the process only took 8 Mins

This is the second ship we watch come through and it drops the water level as fast as eight minuets.  This was a much large vessel than the first one we saw come through and I’d bet that the sides were within inches of these walls.  So impressive.

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mucho bananas, Chaquita

At the tail end of this vessel was a stack of about 58 trailers of Chaquita Bananas.  That’s a lot of bananas!

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like a glove
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Panama City

Looks pretty doesn’t it, worst traffic EVER.  One mile took us almost three hours.  It was extremely time consuming to get anywhere after 2pm and frustrating when we were trying to get our vehicle inspected, and millions of copies made to ship it  over the Darien Gap.

 

Volcano Boarding down Cerro Negro ;)

 

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Our ride out to the volcano with a bunch of Irish backpackers

While we were in Leon, Nicaragua we heard there was some Volcano Boarding that could be done.  I checked YouTube for other particpants’ videos to see if this was something that I could do, if there were any survivors and if anyone had pro-tips.  Christian would have bet you that I wouldn’t do this type of activity.  After every YouTube video I’d run up to him and say something like “they go like 40-60 mph on a board down the volcano!” “People crash pretty hard, some girl went rolling the rest of the way and flew off her board!”  His response was always “yeah, I’m sure, are you sure you wanna do this?  I want to go but I’m not sure if you’re going to like it.  I don’t want to spend money on this if you’re going to get up to the top and I have to worry about you trying to walk down it instead.”  My type of fun isn’t going fast, free-falling or adrenaline-raising type of activities.  I prefer a very relaxed chill type of fun, but I figured this might be the only place in the world that I would be at where I could go down a volcano on a board.  The board is a sturdy piece of wood with a raggedy rope tied to the end for you to hang onto and underneath the board is a piece of metal and fiberglass to make it fly down the gravel-volcano.  When you are at the top and looking down it’s steep enough that you can’t see the route beneath you.

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Here’s Cerro Negro Volcan (Black Hill Volcano) 2391 feet high and last eruption was in 1999.  It goes off about every 20 years or so…

When we arrive at the top we get a briefing from our guide in his broken English, “lean back to be fast, sit-up for slow, and lean back a little bit for medium-fast.  Tap your feet to turn, use feet to stop, hold on.”  Okay sure, but I’m not going first.  I’ll go last, I need to see the ratio of wipe-outs and damage to successful completion.  I was counting how many seconds until I could see someone appear alive from the bottom, the first girl wipes out and we don’t see her for ten minutes.  Then he says ok, Next!   Thirty minutes later Christian and I are the only ones left at the top of the mountain besides a guide using his thumbs to direct boarding traffic.

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Hiking up the volcano, Christian has his board strapped to his back I hired a porter for $5.  Learned a lesson from our hike in Guatemala.

I wanted to go down before Christian so I wasn’t the very last left up there, but Christian gets the thumb first.  I’m waiting on my board, breathing heavily underneath my bandana and a swarm of bees or wasps come across the top of the hill surrounding me.  Are you freakin’ kidding me!!!!  I start scootin my butt on the board to go slow but get the hell out of the swarm.  My lane wasn’t ready, there was a girl wiped out just below me.  “Come on lady!! Hurry up, I’m gonna die up here!”  “Please, please let me go!”  I’ve never been so anxious to do something I was nervous about.  Fuck it, I’m going she better move!”  A swarm of wasps is more horrifying than this volcano boarding, I hang on and head down the volcano.  Just in time I get the thumbs up as I pass the guide.  I’m looking down ahead of me and I can’t spot Christian.  So I lean back, pick up speed and it feels like I’m literally flying on gravel.  Sit-up sit-up sit-up, slow-down slow-down slow-down aaaaaggghhhh, phew I’m good.  I’m coming up on the speed gun so I lean back to pick up speed so no one will know how slow I was going, plus now I can see the bottom.

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You can see how far the lava pooles out when active, almost a mile.  So beautiful.
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This volcano is HOT, the ground here was steaming and too hot to touch
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Christian leaned back hard for some speed right before he wiped out, tore this outfit into pieces, ripped his goggles off and the go-pro went flying.  Clocked at 63kph (40 mph)
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This is me trying to go as slow as possible, sitting straight up and trying not to fly off the board.  Clocked at a smooth-tranquillo 24kph (15mph)

I made it to the bottom of the hill in one-piece and probably the dirtiest I have ever been.  There’s dirt and gravel everywhere, we all had dirt rings around where are goggles were.  I find Christian in shambles at the bottom, I run up to him screaming “wasn’t that awesome! I wish I went faster, can you believe I was going 24kph, I’m so fast!!!”  What was your speed, what happened to you?”

Christian was banged up, missing shoes and his go-pro, bleeding from his arm, leg and face and his suit was torn into pieces.  “I was picking up some serious speed hit a bump flew off the board and rolled down about half way,” he said.  Well how fast were you?  63kph he told me.

The survivors were given a cold beer and a cookie right away and a second beer back at the hostel.

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Helloooooo Nicaragua, We had no idea you are so amazing!

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Leon, Nicaragua
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Catedral de Leon, Nicaragua

We arrived in Leon, Nicaragua with very little expectations other than our friends said it would be hot.  The heat here was no joke, it was diffilcult to move between the hours of 10:30am and 4pm.  We found a cheapish hostel to stay at and parked The Globe Trol on the street right in front of the hostel.  Christian tipped the security guard of the hostel to look over The Globe Trol for the night.  The next morning Christian found our van-haus keyed all over the two sides that the guard couldn’t see.  That’s the risk when we visit a city and park on the street.

After our nine hour drive the day before from El Salvador and two border crossings we slept-in until the room turned into a sauna.  We slowly made our way towards the central park plaza for some touristic photos.   At certain times during the day you can walk on the roof of the Catedral de Leon for $3 per person in your socks.

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Granada, Nicaragua

Our next stop was Granada a few hours south of Leon, this was a colorful colonial city that we only spent the afternoon at while on our way to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.

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Butterfly Sanctuary in Nicaragua

 

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Christian takes me to see the Butterflies

I really love me some butterflies so when Christian found out that just outside of Granada there was a tiny butterfly sancturary it was on our Must Do List.  It’s doesn’t fill the gap on my bucket list where the Monarch Sanctuary in Mexico was, but I couldn’t say no to a tent full of giant colorful butterflies.

Bucket list: Hike a yuge Volcano in Guatemala, check.

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Volcano Acatenango reaches 13,044 feet Christian and our friends Josh and Jenna (travelamateurs) thought hiking up it would be great fun.  I had already decided that I would prefer to skip out on this great adventure, because I tend to have bad timing.  Volcano Acatenango is part of a two peak volcano, you hike up the taller one at 13,044 feet (3976m) and you look down at the very active Volcan Fuego.  It has a loose schedule of off five days and on fire for five days, the hike was set for an “on” day.  My worry was that I would do this insane hike up the volcano in all types of weather and I wouldn’t be able to see the Volcan Fuego erupting.  I love hiking but there needs to be some sort of pay off; travelamateurs.com Give me a view, cave, river, waterfall, lake or an erupting volcano next door.  The night before Josh called Christian and they had the trip all set with a local guide.  “What if I want to go?” I said.  It was go time and I got a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out).  If I didn’t go then the volcano would erupt in perfect plain sight and I would miss out on the awesome opportunity with our friends.  The next morning I put my game face and big girl pants on.

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Our guide tells us at the head of the trail that the first 45 mins are straight up and tough but the next five hours would be easier.  Jaime, our guide carried all of our food and cooked our meals for the trip up on his broken backpack tied to his back with a rope.  I was the rock-like caboose during the entire trek.  We also brought along our friend’s giant white german shepard and at first everyone was worried how he was going to do.  I had a feeling that if I could survive this quest that this fearless pup would run circles around me and he did.  Up and up we climb arriving at base camp just an hour before sunset, I would venture to say it was about 30 degrees cooler at basecamp.  We were surrounded in clouds and the wind had picked up,  Jaime points to where we should see the other volcano.  He in a hopeful attitude says “it is going to rain tonight and that’s good news because after the rain the clouds will clear and open up for a great view!”  The plan is to go to sleep early and wake up at 3:45am and hike to the summit for the sunrise and an erruption.  That night Jaime makes us some hotdog-spaghetti and beans for dinner with hot chocolate.  The weather is a wee bit intollerable at base-camp so we all retreat to our tents and inside our sleeping bags.  Off in the nearby distance we can hear and feel Volcan Fuego errupting.  The clouds open up for a breif moment and we all catch a glimpse of the volcano shooting fire into the sky and the lava river flowing down the side of the mountain.  It was too cold to peep out of the tent for longer than a split second so we try to go to sleep while hearing the fire rage out the top of the neighbor volcano and hope for better conditions in the morning.  The rain is whipping around our tents and Jaime was climbing up trees and macheting down branches to make tarpaulin from scratch for our tents to keep us all dry throughout the rainstorm.

3:45am on the dot Jaime is at our tents “Guys, Vamos!”  It’s pitch black out, cold, windy and time to finish the hike up volcanic gravel for an hour or two.  We take our headlamps and try to stay on the thin trail in the dark, two steps up and one slide down.  Eventually we make it to the summit and we can barely see ten feet in front of us, let alone the other volcano.  It’s so close we can hear and feel the rumbling but our timing just didn’t work out and the weather was a thrashing winterlike storm.  We couldn’t stand it for much longer than a few photos and Jaime said it wasn’t going to get any better.  Behind the clouds the sun was trying make an apperance, but we never got a clear shot it just lit the way down back to base-camp for us.

Here we are at the chilling summit in a monumental moment together during our last week in Antigua, Guatemala.