Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito, Ecuador is a relatively new facility, having opened in 2013. It replaced the former airport of the same name, which became obsolete when it could not be expanded any further because of the surrounding mountainous terrain. But it was at least conveniently located, near the heart of town. This new airport is a good 45-minute drive away, or a bad drive depending on traffic. Fortunately, we had pretty smooth sailing early on the morning of February 9, when we left our hostel in Quito and caught a hired ride to the airport, driven by a congenial young woman who was a friend of the hostel manager.
Quito to Bogota Paper masks required on the plane, luckily we had some stashed in our bags. Our cloth masks are triple-layered and meet World Health Organization guidelines by the way. Our first air travel with a yoga mat -- it fits in the overhead compartment! First working water fountain or filler we've seen at an Airport since COVID hit. A sign of normality returning?
And there were no complications in flying from Quito to Bogota, Colombia, our 4th country on this tour (not counting Panama, where we merely changed planes). That was the second leg of our trip from our last volunteer position (Ambato, Ecuador) to our next one (Villanueva, Colombia). Getting through customs and immigration was unbelievably quick and painless. The immigrations official just asked us the purpose of our visit to Colombia, and as usual we just replied tourism (we figure it’s best not to volunteer that we are volunteering, lest we run into any red tape). He then asked, “are you going to do some fishing? We have great fishing here.” To which we replied that, no, we’re not really into fishing, but we do like to hike and explore, and we’d heard that Colombia had some magnificent terrain. And after another pleasantry or two, he cheerfully sent us on our way.
Now the next order of business was to come up with some cash. In Ecuador, we’d been using U.S. money, which is the official currency there. But Colombia uses the Colombian Peso — about 4000 of which make up one U.S. dollar. Yes, you read that right. Even with prices in Colombia being very low in comparison, the number of pesos you pay for goods and services can sound like a staggering sum. Doing a conversion on the spot is really not complicated; you simply forget the thousands (i.e., drop the last 3 zeros) and divide by 4. (Nonetheless, we would become confused on more than one occasion, and offer the wrong payment for something because we’d misplaced a decimal point.) Thus, a million pesos is equal to roughly $250, which we figured would be about right to get us through for at least a week or two. And make us feel like millionaires to boot. By the way, we’re impressed by the choice of personages pictured on Colombian currency: women as well as men, and even, on the 50 thousand note, Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And in the U.S., we get stuck with just dead male politicians.
But there was no ATM affiliated with one of our banks in the terminal; and Uber was apparently not available at the airport (it’s restricted thus in some cities) so we’d have to catch a cab. That meant we’d have to bite the bullet and use an airport ATM that charged a high fee. Since the fee is the same no matter how much you withdraw, we collected the maximum of 800,000 pesos (quick calculation: 200 bucks) and stepped outside to one of the waiting cabs. We asked the driver in advance how much he would charge to take us to the bus terminal, and he replied 7000 pesos (about $1.75). It was a deal.
The terminal in question was called the Salitre Terminal, and it appeared to be the main hub for buses; at least for those going on long-distance trips. Our destination was a little city called Villanueva, one of several (at least a couple that we know of) cities and towns of that name in Colombia. The one to which we were headed is in the department (state) called Casanare, and is nearly 200 miles from Bogota. Because the road going there is mountainous and winding, the trip takes anywhere from 7 to 10 hours, depending on traffic, weather, and the whims of the driver. Not wanting to be stuck on a bus that long (in no small part because these buses don’t have bathrooms) we decided to break the journey into two parts, stopping for the night at the approximate halfway point of Villavicencio, where we’d booked an Airbnb. There are a couple of different routes that buses can take from Bogota to our destination, but this one was best for our purposes.
Since the posted schedule, such as it was, was not exactly clear to us, we asked the man behind the counter from whom we bought our tickets when the bus departed. He replied “veinte minutos” (20 minutes), so we rushed down to the boarding bays where he’d pointed, trying to find the exact gate. A helpful woman working in a gift shop there asked if she could assist us, so we showed her our tickets and inquired if she knew where the bus would be boarding. She said at gate 52, which was just a few doors away. So we sat and waited. And waited. Definitely longer than 20 minutes.
So we asked one of the other passengers waiting if he knew when the bus would come. And he also replied “veinte minutos”. Another 20 minutes? Yes, indeed. And then some. We began to get the impression that “veinte minutos” was not a precise designation of time in Colombia.
Finally, our bus pulled up and started loading. We knew it was our bus, because we had its number on our tickets. But it was at gate 56, not gate 52. We got into the line to load our bags in the underneath luggage compartment and board the bus, which we saw had a good choice of seats available. And then out of nowhere came about a dozen guys, apparently maintenance workers of some sort — we’d guess road crew, since they were carrying big plastic garbage bags full of gear, and even a generator and a can of fuel. They nosed right ahead of us, with the complicity of the driver, who loaded their gear into the underneath luggage bins, and then they barged right ahead to claim seats. We still managed to get decent seats and seated together, despite their best efforts.
San Francisco, a colorful contrast to the red brick buildings dominating the rest of the Bogota skyline
On the outer edges of Bogota, we passed through a colorful neighborhood called San Francisco — which, it turns out, is actually one of the worst parts of the city — and nearby we spotted a ski-lift type of cable ride up the side of a mountain. And we figured that in the near future when we actually had some time to spend in this city, we’d have to experience that for ourselves.
The bus was new and comfy enough, and the trip took about 3 and a half hours, after several stops to allow for the customary ritual of vendors hawking their wares to passengers. One of these pit stops was rather lengthy, allowing the driver time to grab his lunch, and passengers time to do likewise and/ or go the bathroom.
Lots of spectacular views and construction from Bogota to Villavicencio. At one back up Dennis hopped off to do as the locals do when no bathroom is in sight (well the men anyway).
Later, as we were about to enter a tunnel, the traffic came to a dead standstill, apparently due to road construction. And we were stuck there for about an hour. Several passengers got out and went to the side of the road to create their own facilities; and rumor has it that one of our party was among them. While he was still out, the traffic began to clear and the bus started up and began moving. But as we’ve mentioned before, it’s very common in Latin America for passengers to board a slowly moving bus. The driver wasn’t threatening to leave anyone behind; he was just giving the cue that it was time to be seated again. We think.
By the time we entered Villavicencio, we’d already noticed that a few times, the driver had stopped at various odd places to discharge passengers at their request. And having examined Google Maps, we found that a suitable location to disembark would be across the road from a supermarket, only a few blocks from our target. So with our fractured Spanish we asked the driver to deposit us there, and he did, while the attendant got out to unload our bags for us beside the road.
After walking the few blocks and finding the address where we’d be staying, we faced the next hurdle of actually getting inside. The apartment was located behind a high metal fence with a locked gate — too high a fence for us to scale if it ever came to that. And we didn’t have explicit directions for checking in. The host, a woman named Flor Maria, didn’t speak English, and communicated with us via messages that she’d apparently tried to translate into English herself, with the result that they came out sounding as if they’d been run through a sausage grinder. And she was apparently not on the premises when we arrived. When we texted her asking how to get in, she replied that we should go to the “goal” and then “continue”.
After we’d been out front scratching our heads for a few minutes, a neighbor came and unlocked the gate for us. He didn’t speak English, either, but he knew we were guests of hers (maybe our backpacks gave it away). The apartment was unlocked, and her teenage son was at home. He didn’t speak English, either, but he showed us to our room.
On the way in, we walked past the carport, and could see a car parked inside it with a broken window. Later, we learned that Flor Maria had been at the hospital visiting her other son, who had been shot while he was in the car. Yikes. We don’t know if he was driving or just sitting in the car, or who shot him or why. But he was going to be okay. Later, she came home and welcomed us, and she and the younger son went back to the hospital, and left the place to us and a couple of other guests.
It turned out that her reference to the “goal” was actually intended to mean the security gate behind the apartment. A guard stationed there would let us through whenever we wanted to come or go, and we didn’t have to worry about practicing Parkour at the front gate. So Dennis went out to round up some grub for dinner. Not wanting to walk all the way back to the supermarket, he confined his quest to the few mom-and-pop stores in the two or three block area around the apartment, and found a very limited selection of groceries.
At one of these stores, a helpful woman who worked there asked through Google Translate if there was anything in particular that he was looking for. He replied that he was hoping to find a can of beans — and specified that he needed some with no lard added. She said that they had none in stock, but anything he wanted that wasn’t in the store, she could have delivered to him. He explained that he was just visiting someone and didn’t know the actual address. She then said that if he was willing to wait about 5 minutes, someone could bring the beans to the store. So that’s what happened. Being Americans, we were surprised, by the way, to learn that beans don’t seem to be all that popular in Colombia — nor even in Ecuador, for that matter. Having feasted many a time on Mexican dishes loaded with frijoles, we’d figured that they were a staple all over Latin America. It ain’t necessarily so.
Back in the apartment, we made and consumed a reasonably tasty dinner. And there were leftovers, which we put inside one of the two Tupperware-like pouches we’d purchased back in the States for the purpose of transporting food in a compact manner, and placed it in the refrigerator. But when we left the following day, we forgot to check the refrigerator, and so one of our precious pouches got left behind. Well, we figured that since we’d be passing back through in three weeks’ time, maybe we could stay here again and retrieve it then. (Spoiler alert: we did, and we did.)
When we left the next morning, Flor Maria had already said goodbye, and gone out again. There was another guest, a fellow who spoke some English, who called a cab for us to the bus terminal; and when the taxi arrived, he spoke to the driver to find out the fare, which again turned out to be 7000 pesos. (We’ve noticed, by the way, that government and business vehicles in Colombia have the license number posted on the side as well as the front and rear.) When our cab pulled up in front of the terminal, we were besieged by several shuttle drivers eager for our business — hustling is a way of life in Latin America. But we thought it best to go on inside the terminal and find a bus or van there, to get the most accurate and economical arrangement for our peso.
Once again, when we bought our tickets and asked what time the bus would leave, we were told “veinte minutos”. Okay, that settles it. “Veinte minutos” is definitely a Colombian expression meaning “soon” or “sooner or later” or “I haven’t the foggiest notion, but I’m going to make it sound like the wait is not too long even if it’s an agonizing eternity”. In any case, the wait was, once again, most emphatically longer than 20 minutes. (Interesting footnote: the waiting area had a statue of the Virgin Mary, at which people deposited flowers and prayers — perhaps in the belief that it would make the bus arrive sooner, who knows.)
Meanwhile Dennis — he of the eternally active bladder — decided he needed the restroom before another long ride, and went to one such WC, which of course was a pay facility. He was confused about the attendant’s explanation of the charges involved until finally, a young woman approached who spoke English and actually paid his pee fee for him.
This time, instead of riding on a large bus, we were packed into a van with every seat taken. Our large backpacks were loaded into the back, underneath the rear seat, and our small bags, with our munchies and other accessible items inside, were loaded onto our laps, leaving us little room for interpretive dancing. The van we were loaded onto started its engine, then sat sputtering and coughing and belching out smoke for a few minutes, and then we were told that it wasn’t up to the task, and we had to transfer to a different vehicle. At least we assume that’s what the announcement meant, since everyone was getting off and boarding another van, so we followed suit. Thank heavens we learned that the first van was broken before it left, instead of somewhere up in the mountains.
The first stop was a colorful little town — perhaps village would be a better word — only a few miles out of Villavicencio, abuzz with vendors and street activity. The driver stopped there for at least half an hour, apparently because it was a way station at which he took care of some paperwork. Then finally we were off again, with even longer to wait before we reached our destination, and ultimately reach a bathroom that we’d surely be needing by then. (Have we made that point before?)
It occurred to us that when riding in a van like this, it might be a good idea to sit in the rear, to keep an eye on our bags. Because several times before our journey’s end, there were stops at which other passengers got on or off, and loaded or unloaded items in the back, out of our view. It would have been possible for someone to make off with one of our backpacks, though we doubt if anyone but us would be foolish enough to cart such a heavy load around. But we’ve heard horror stories about people having their bags stolen or rummaged through on shuttles like this; but most likely, these were rare occurrences that get blown out of proportion, thanks to the magnification power of the Internet.
Again, we hit some road construction, but it didn’t delay us as long; just long enough for the vendors who had stationed themselves at this opportune point to hustle the passengers. One of them was a woman selling a fruit that we had not seen before, and she was giving free samples of it. Hesitantly, we accepted some, and absolutely loved it. So we ended up being paying customers ourselves. Later, we asked one of our fellow passengers what the name of this fruit was, and she told us it was mangostino. Well, by golly, we hope to encounter mangostino again in the future.
When we got into Villanueva, we had the driver dump us only a short walk from the school where we’d be volunteering. It was fairly easy to find, thanks to a sign with a British flag on it (English is taught there with a British system and British teaching materials). We checked in with our host and were shown to our room, which was behind a classroom where a few students were watching a film. One of the first people we met was an American named Chris, from Michigan, who was the boyfriend of Milani, the school director.
Finally, we could relax and get our bearings, and round up some grub for dinner. A little later, we received a message from our hosts, inviting us to go out that evening for a drink. We reluctantly accepted — we’re not really drinkers, and we weren’t sure we wanted to be out at night when we had a long morrow ahead of us. But we were glad we did, because the place they took us, only a couple of blocks away, was quite interesting. It’s called Nicky’s Beach Club, though it’s nowhere near a beach — it does, however, sit on a bluff where you can see the river not far away — and it’s essentially an outdoors facility, that plays music (live on weekends) and has a huge area for dancing and carousing. Little did we realize that this place would be a source of annoyance on the next couple of weekends, as its music was very loud and went on into the wee hours of the morning.
For the time being, however, we thought it was a really cool place to become acquainted with our new hosts. After which we went back to our room and settled in for a night’s rest before tackling our teaching duties beginning the next morning.
Summer Tanager (red) and other birds (unidentified) all in Villavicencio. Burnished-buff Tanager (blue and gold) in Villanueva.
Feb. 9-10, 2022