June 17, 2024

My book "Heartbeats Across Borders" is available now on! Be sure to get your copy! And sign up for my mailing list.

Image of the cover of the book of short stories titled


A Collection of Short Stories

image of cover of the book titled

Heartbeats Across Borders

Two hearts, two countries, one love


My South America Journey

June 17, 2024

I left Roldanillo, Colombia on October 30, 2022. I traveled to Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and a few border towns in Brazil. I did this trip not as a vacation, but as a journey to find a town to be my new hometown. Being that this journey was to find a new hometown and that one purpose only, I did not visit many tourist locations. I concentrated on what the towns offered: their cleanliness, friendliness, beauty, and walkability.

First a little background: I left the USA on May 31, 2013, and flew to Barranquilla, Colombia. Barranquilla is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, about 115 kilometers northeast of Cartagena. While Cartagena is famous as a vacation spot, Barranquilla isn't, and for good reason. But I chose it because it appeared to be a better place to start a new life as an English teacher (there were fewer native-English-speaking teachers). And it was, until the pandemic and quarantine. At that time the classes dried up as everybody hunkered down at home, secluded from the rest of the world. I took that as my opportunity to retire early. I had that option because one, I turned 60 during the pandemic, and two, I am a widower and so was able to start receiving my late wife's social security. I'm glad I did that. I lived in Barranquilla for about seven and a half years, which was followed by a stint in Armenia, Quindio, (about 1000 kilometers south of Barranquilla, nestled in the western side of the central range of the Andes Mountains), then Cartago (about 50 kilometers northwest of Armenia) in the Valle del Cauca (the very north and center of the valley), and finally in Roldanillo. Roldanillo, also in the northern part of the Valle del Cauca about 60 kilometers south of Cartago. Roldanillo is my favorite place to live in Colombia because of the climate, the town itself, and the people.

Why did I decide to leave if I was so happy where I was? Because Colombia has been changing these last few years. Recent Presidents have changed the immigration and tax laws. The situation of Colombia has become less friendly to foreigners. It is now more difficult to get a residence visa and the tax laws are less foreigner-friendly than ever. So, I decided to go looking for another place to live, and based on what I read on many websites most of the countries of South America are friendlier to expatriates than Colombia.

I left Roldanillo on October 30, 2022, to travel throughout South America in search of a town to make my new hometown. On my way to Ecuador, I visited a few towns in southern Colombia, not to evaluate them as potential new hometowns, but I did find them quite nice places to visit. One town, Pitalito, is in an area called a 'red zone' by the government, referring to guerrilla and paramilitary groups. A friend in Barranquilla sent me a message warning me to be careful, that it was in a red zone, and so on. In the town, I spoke with several police officers, several business people, and the receptionist in the hotel I stayed at, about this red zone situation, and they all gave me the same responses-in the town it is safe, in the mountains outside of town, not so safe. So, just stay in town. After visiting several other small towns, I arrived in the border town of Ipiales. Ipiales has a famous and beautiful cathedral built across a narrow canyon and it was one of the few 'tourist attractions' I visited. I made sure to be there as the daylight dimmed to darkness, as the cathedral lights up when it's dark, and it is quite a striking sight.I crossed into Ecuador at the Ipiales, Colombia-Tulcán, Ecuador crossing, on November 11, and it went smoothly. My journey took me south along the mountains and into Quito, where I was pickpocketed by three men. They didn't get much in my wallet but it did cause a delay of about a week while I waited for a new bankcard to be sent to me.

I don't like big cities, which includes Quito. About Quito, besides being pickpocketed, the climate is quite cold because of the high elevation (2850 meters/9350 feet), the city has a very large historical area (which is where I was pickpocketed), and some great parks.

From Quito, I headed west to the coast and then south, and along the way visited 13 towns. I skipped Guayaquil due to its bad reputation as a high-crime city, and continued north back into the center of Ecuador to Quevedo, then across the mountains, via Ambato, to the east side and visited seven towns before heading west across the mountains again to finish the southern coast. The Selva region, the eastern side of the mountains, is beautiful, the towns sit in small valleys or are built on the slopes of the mountains. This was my favorite region in Ecuador. In Ecuador, I particularly like the town of Puyo, and while there, I met a family from Canada. They live near Puyo in a town called Shell. I was in Ecuador for about two and a half months, and in that time, I decided the people of Ecuador are friendlier than the people of Colombia. In all, during this part of my journey, in Ecuador, I visited 36 towns, which included only five cities of 200,000 or more population.

I entered Perú on January 17, at the Huaquillas, Ecuador-Zarumilla, Perú crossing. I followed the coast south until I reached Piura. Now, I had planned my journey using Google Maps and figured on using buses and other public transport between towns. Looking at the map, I saw some numbered highways heading east out of Piura and eventually crossing the mountains, so I got a shared taxi (collective) and it took me to a tiny village called Canchagque. From there, no more collectivos, no transport of any kind east. So, I spent the night in the one hostel, returned to Piura, and got a bus that took a long loop around a different route. And, to top off that long day, the bus had no working headlights and it was a night run. Did that matter? No, the driver simply drove a bit slower and used the light from the amber lights on the bus to see some of the road. Eventually, we stopped for a break, at about nine hours, at a restaurant, and while there, the headlights were fixed., it was 15 ½ hours by the time we got to Moyobamba, on the east side of the Andes. I liked Moyobamba and spent a week there. If you like public art in the form of murals painted on buildings/houses/walls/etc, Moyobamba is a good place to visit. There are two neighborhoods where almost every house is painted up in murals or similar artistic forms.

From there, I headed south along the eastern side of the Andes, eventually arriving in Mazamari. In Mazamari, I met a woman who could speak some English, almost conversational, but only her. Mazamari is a very small town and I like it because it's quiet and in a beautiful area. There are many cacao orchards in the area, and many streets in town are used as drying areas for the cacao. Oh, for those who don't know what cacao is-it is what you get cocoa/chocolate from.

I visited nine towns along the eastern side of the mountains, or up high in the mountains. After Mazamari, I crossed the Andes yet again and arrived in Lima where I spent a week. Lima is a big city and a great place to visit. It even several archeological areas in the city, which I wasn't aware of until I happened to walk by one of them. Of all the big cities I have visited in my life, if I were to choose one big city to live in, it would be Lima.

By this point in my journey, I needed new shoes. I wanted to buy a pair of Merrill Moab hiking shoes. All through Ecuador and Perú (up to this point) I had not seen any Merrill shoes. One day while out walking around I came across a new shopping center in southern Lima, and low and behold! A Merrill store! Inside was probably every model of Merrill shoe available. I was finally able to buy the Moab 3 shoes I'd been searching for. At this point, I had walked about 3500 kilometers (verified by the Strava app on my phone).

When I started this journey, I had new Saucony shoes, they lasted a hair over 1000 kilometers (620 miles). I replaced those with Merrel Moab 3 shoes and they lasted 3457 kilometers (2148 miles). I then replaced those with another pair of Moab 3s I bought in a small town in Colombia later in my journey, and that pair lasted only 1246 kilometers (774 miles). I think they weren't original Merrell shoes. I then replaced those with a pair of Moab 3s I bought on and they now, as of this writing, have 1621 kilometers (1007 miles) on them, and they still look just about as good as new. And those numbers are a bit on the low side as I haven't run the Strava app every single time I've been out walking. My point for all of that is this: if you do a long journey with a lot of walking/backpacking be sure to wear good shoes, and for me, those are the Merrell Moab shoes. (No, I'm not getting paid by Merrell for that endorsement. I wish.)

From Lima, I stayed on the coast. I had originally planned on another mountain crossing, but the indigenous people had all but closed the southeastern corner of Perú with protests against the government and with roadblocks. Along the coast, I of the towns I visited was Nazca, and there I did my second tourist attraction: I took a flight over the Nazca Lines. I just wish I had had a proper camera; a phone is simply not good enough to get pictures of the Lines from the plane. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful flight. In Perú, I visited 38 towns, which included only four cities with populations of more than 200,000.I crossed into Chile on March 24 after a little more than two months in Perú.

The northern half of Chile is all Atacama Desert, meaning it is brown/grey/blah. The Atacama is the second driest region on Earth, and NASA uses this area for testing Mars rovers and instruments. The primary place to visit is the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama and the area around it. The only green plant life is that which has been planted by humans. I didn't much care for northern Chile. I visited three coastal towns then headed east across the desert Andes Mountains and on into Argentina. I've seen a few videos that talk about the Atacama being the driest place on Earth, and it is. In the area I passed through, though, there were a few streams scattered about, and along those streams were low trees, shrubs, and grass. However, get more than a few meters from the stream and it was an utterly dry, barren, and lifeless desert.

A note about the coasts of Chile, Perú, and Ecuador-they have no coffee culture. Finding good coffee is nearly impossible. But, on the eastern side of the Andes in Ecuador and Perú, you can find many coffee shops and good coffee. And by good coffee, I mean coffee that is not prepared in an espresso machine. Those are for espresso, not coffee. They do not make good coffee, period, never. On the coast that is what you will find, but east of the Andes you will find proper drip coffee.

On March 31, I crossed into Argentina. I visited northern Argentina with my plan taking me north to Bolivia. I found Argentina to be a depressing place, even if it is also a beautiful country. The economy has been very bad for a few years now, and inflation is terrible (caused by a many-years-long major drought that has devastated the agriculture industry and the country's economy). All of this is evident in the towns-sidewalks are crumbling into pieces and many businesses are closed permanently (even around the main town plazas), the Argentine people, in general, do not look at you eye-to-eye in the streets (they look down), I saw very few that looked directly at me. I asked one person in a hotel about this, and he said it is because they are all so poor they cannot look at another person face-to-face, and then he laughed. So, was he serious or joking? I don't know. The towns in northern Argentina are very run-down, worn out, and in desperate need of much work to clean them up. But the economy doesn't allow for that, and high inflation is ruining the country. I visited 10 towns in Argentina on the way to the border, and once there, well, that didn't go so well.

I arrived at the crossing at the very small border town of Salvador Mazza. Now, before my trip, I had read that at the Bolivia border crossings, several bloggers wrote stuff like: "The people are very helpful and will help you with everything you need to cross into Bolivia." Ha! Don't believe a word of it! At the border, in the town of Salvador Mazza, I exited Argentina, no problem with that, and entered the Bolivia side where the young woman gave me a list of requirements that I needed to fulfill before I could enter the country, then turned her attention back to whatever else she had to pay attention to besides me. Bolivia has requirements for US citizens that are more odious than for other countries. At any rate, I then went back to the Argentina entry and re-entered Argentina, and went straight to the Bolivia consulate office a few blocks away. There, another young woman gave me a piece of paper-a printed list of requirements! The exact same list as the first! Did anyone offer to help me with any of the requirements? No, no help at all, of any kind. And, this town-Salvador Mazza, does not have all of what is needed to even fulfill the list. And to top it off, it was cold and raining, the streets were muddy, and I was not happy. I tried to cool off by walking around and exploring a bit of the town, but the place was mostly mud streets, it was raining, it was cold, and it was getting dark. I could be wrong, but from what I saw, there are no more than two or three paved streets. Now, I didn't explore all of the town, but a good part of it. At any rate, I stayed one night in a hotel that was recommended as good but it wasn't even a reasonably nice hotel, and the next morning I got a bus out of there. I went south, back through a few towns I had already visited, then caught another bus and headed for Paraguay. A bit more about the Bolivian visa: yes, US citizens must obtain a paper visa before being allowed entry, has a fee of $160 and is good for a maximum of 30 days, and it can be extended another 30 days only, and that's it for the entire year (as of this writing).

What I don't understand is this: Bolivia is a country that is crying for dollars, they are desperate for dollars. So, if they want more dollars, shouldn't they be letting US tourists in as easily as possible? Putting up all these hurdles is just blocking the dollars they desperately need from coming in makes absolutely no sense.

Okay, so I caught a bus and headed southeast to Formosa, Argentina (about 875 kilometers). Formosa is on the border with Paraguay, about 145 kilometers south of Asunción, Paraguay. Of the 16 towns, I visited in Argentina, only two had populations of more than 200,000, with Formosa being one of them. I liked Formosa. It has many parks and is very cyclist-friendly, great for runners, and people who enjoy outdoor summer sports. I decided to keep Formosa on my list of potential new hometowns.

After a few days in Formosa, I caught a very small 'ferry' (people only) to cross the river to the tiny town of Alberdi, Paraguay. I entered Paraguay on April 22, and after a few hours in Alberdi (it is very small, only a few blocks in each direction), I took a bus north to Villeta, about 42 kilometers south of Asunción. I found the area outside of Asunción particularly beautiful. The towns of Itá, Itaguá, Areguá, and San Bernardino were some of my favorites. Then a few more kilometers east, I visited a couple of other towns, one in particular, Villarrica, is very nice, another town that I liked. One problem I found in this central part of Paraguay was the language. Yes, it's Spanish, but no, it isn't pure Spanish. More than half the population speaks both Spanish and Guaraní and the general population typically mixes the two. I headed east about 322 kilometers to the city of Ciudad del Este, which I highly do NOT recommend anyone visit. If I had a list of the ugliest cities/towns I visited CDE would rank number one. I have read in various forums that there are areas around or near CDE that are quite nice but I didn't see any area of the city that could be called 'nice' in any way.

Then I went south to Encarnación. I liked this town enough to visit it three times. Encarnación has excellent parks and is very cyclist- and runner-friendly. It is quiet, pretty, clean, and has an excellent climate. And, since this town is on the border with Argentina, the people speak Spanish, not the Spanish-Guaraní mix.

On May 16, I crossed back into Argentina, this time to the town of Posadas, Argentina. To get to Uruguay one has to cross through a bit of Argentina. Posadas, like Encarnación, has a lot of park space for those who love spending time outdoors.Those two towns have so much land for parks because of a miscalculation by the engineers before a dam was built. That left a lot of land that had been vacated for the eventual change in the height of the river. That land on both sides of the river was then converted to park space, and there is a lot of it. It's great, I love what they did with it-turning it into park space and not more commercial or residential buildings.

On May 18, I headed south to the town of Santo Tomé and crossed into São Borja, Brazil. Now, I could have taken the route south staying in Argentina and eventually crossing into Uruguay at Concordia, Argentina, and into Salto, Uruguay, but I chose to go through a bit of Brazil and eventually cross into the northern corner of Uruguay.

Brazil, where they speak Portuguese and no Spanish. Now, I've read many websites that say they speak some Spanish there, but don't believe them. According to what I found on some linguistics websites the Spanish language is spoken by less than one percent of the population of Brazil. And that includes the border towns alongside Argentina and Uruguay. In fact, in the towns of Quaraí, Brazil, and Artigas, Uruguay, you will find a definite division-Spanish on one side of the invisible border and Portuguese on the other. I wrote invisible because the two towns are one commercial area with shared urban and suburban neighborhoods, and no wall, no fence, no nothing separating the two countries. Everyone is free to cross back and forth at will. If one wants to continue further into either of the countries, one needs to check into the immigration office. I arrived at said office at 6 pm on a Saturday and it was closed for the night. So, I then had to find a hotel for the night in Quaraí, not what I planned on or wanted to do, but so it went.

I struggled with the language barrier in Brazil, I don't know any Portuguese. Now, both Portuguese and Spanish are romance languages and are related in many ways, but in this southwestern region of Brazil, they have a dialect that makes them even harder to understand. There is a dialect called portuñol, which is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish, and many people in this region speak it. I found the experience in southwestern Brazil to be a bit on the frustrating side. I hadn't experienced anything like in any of the other countries I had visited.

On May 21, I crossed into Artigas, Uruguay. I continued to travel east alongside the border with Brazil, and the climate was reasonably warm, but it was getting toward the end of Fall. Then I went into the interior and visited Tacuarembó where at night the temps dropped to as little as 3° C one night, 5° C the following night, and 11° C the next night. I am not used to these kinds of temperatures. I lived in Southern Arizona for seven years before relocating to Barranquilla, Colombia, and both of those areas are quite hot. I was in Barranquilla for 7+ years before I moved across the country to a valley in the Andes Mountains. Therefore, I am acclimated to a hot climate. When I arrived in the town of Tacuarembó, Uruguay, I started getting very strong hiccups, and they lasted for hours, then stopped for a little while, then restarted, and this went on for two days. It continued when I visited Melo, Uruguay, as well. A person at the hotel told me the weather along the coast is slightly warmer than in the interior of the country, so I went directly to Montevideo, skipping a few towns I had on my list to visit. That person was incorrect. It was friggin' freezing! I caught a cold in addition to the hiccups continuing all of those days. And yes, hiccups can be caused by a drastic temperature change. I discovered that bit of info on some medical websites while looking for info about such strong hiccups. I'd had enough of the cold weather and decided to start working my way north, even if it meant cutting at least six more towns and the entire Atlantic coast of Uruguay out of my journey. So, I headed north along the Argentina border to Salto. Just a few kilometers before entering the city, the weather was noticeably warmer and my hiccups stopped. Just like that, immediately, they stopped. My visit to Uruguay included only five towns (because I cut the visit to Uruguay short). Along the border with Brazil, I visited only four towns in Brazil.

From Salto I went across the river to Concordia, Argentina, on June 3, and then on June 4 I continued north to Encarnación, Paraguay. I stayed in Encarnación for two and a half weeks.

At that point, it was the middle of winter in that part of the world and southern Argentina and Uruguay were simply too cold for me. Plus, being that I was backpacking from Colombia and warmer climates, I didn't have any winter-type clothing. My jacket was more on the lightweight side. I decided it was time to start making my way back north to Colombia.During my return north, I passed through several more towns in Paraguay, along a different route from my first visit. This time I headed further north, and found the town of Filadelfia. This is a Mennonite town, so I heard more German and English spoken than Spanish. Pozo Hondo, the tiny border crossing, has no hotel, no hostel, and nothing for spending the night, so be prepared to cross the same day you arrive. Don't do what I did, that is, stop to eat after getting off the bus, if it happens to be the last bus of the day. If you do, you'll miss your opportunity to cross the border before the crossing closes for the night. And, with no hotels or other places to stay, well, it won't be a comfortable night. I talked to the border guy and he talked to another person and they let me leave Paraguay, but then I had to converse with the border guy on the Argentina side. That took some time, but eventually, one person came out to give me the appropriate entry, at about 2 am. Then I just had to wait about four hours for a bus to arrive to take me on a five-hour-or-so ride to the closest real town.

I crossed into northern Argentina on July 7, took a bus direct from San Salvador de Jujuy, and entered Chile, again at San Pedro de Atacama, on July 12. I could have taken routes further south in Chile but due to the cold winter weather, I decided to just my hiney to warmer climes, so I passed quickly through Chile and back into Perú on July 16.

My second time in Perú, the warm climate was very welcomed. However, at the border, the immigration guy did not give me the remaining 20 days from my first 90-day visit entry stamp; he gave me a new 90-day stamp. That resulted in me losing about three weeks in Peru. I visited a few towns a second time, including Arequipa. I liked Arequipa the first time I visited, and this second time I like it even more. The views of the mountains from just about anywhere in the city are incredible. The volcano Misti is only some 20 kilometers from the city center. Anyway, in Perú, as throughout all my journey, I stayed in most towns for only one or two nights, occasionally three nights, but I stayed in Moyobamba for five nights. I liked Moyobamba, and I put it on my list of potential new hometowns. My route north through Perú started along the coast and followed my previous route south. I stopped to visit new friends from my first trip through Perú, and when I arrived in Lima, I immediately caught a bus to cross the mountains. I revisited a few towns, visited a few towns I hadn't visited the first time here, and eventually made it back to the border with Ecuador. However, this time, it was at the Namballe crossing.I re-entered Ecuador on August 29, and the immigration guy gave me the remaining 21 or so days from my first 90-day visit, so I had that three weeks plus if needed I could get a 90-day extension, which I chose not to do as there was no immigration office in any of the towns I was visiting. I revisited a few towns and decided to remove Catamayo from my top 10 list. I spent a week or so in Puyo and still like it. On my way north, I visited several towns I had not seen the first time through and made it to the General Farfan crossing.

I re-entered Colombia on September 14. I traveled alongside the eastern slopes of the Andes Central Range. I returned to Roldanillo, my starting point, on September 25.

Since my entry stamp in my passport was good for 90 days plus an extension of 90 days, I stayed in Roldanillo for the full six months allotted. After that, I packed up my clothes and hit the road, again. This time on my route south I visited different towns whenever possible. I left Roldanillo on March 1, 2024. I visited Cali and a few towns on my way to Ecuador.

But, Ecuador… Ecuador has been having problems with illegal armed groups and the gang-related to Adolfo Macías, AKA Fito. If you aren't aware of what I'm writing about, read on. He is the leader of a gang that can be described as: an organized crime syndicate, a drug cartel, and a prison gang. Adolfo Macias had been convicted of organized crime, narcotrafficking, extortion, and murder. Also, it has been reported that he may have been involved in human trafficking, money laundering, and violence against civilians. He had been sentenced to 34 years in prison. It was reported that he escaped a maximum-security prison in 2013, but the January 2024 escape is the one of concern because he is still out and rebuilding his "gang". In Ecuador, it is believed he is in the process of rebuilding Los Choneros. Where he is now either the authorities don't know or they are keeping that info secret. But the Los Choreros base is Guayaquil, Ecuador.

So, with that and the stepped-up security at the borders, the many reports of various crime problems throughout the country, and warnings put out by the Ecuadoran government, I chose to get a bus from Tulcán at the northern border directly to Huaquillas at the southern border. I had wanted to visit a few of the towns in the Selva region again, but, oh well.

I entered Perú on March 9, 2024. This time I headed down the coast to Lima and visited many towns along the way. I also stopped at several archeological sites this time around and enjoyed visiting all of them, with the ancient city of Chan Chan being my favorite. It's huge! And you can walk around freely throughout most of the ancient city. When I was there the major wall-enclosed area was undergoing some restoration work. After Lima, I crossed the Andes to the east side and revisited a couple of towns, visited a few I hadn't visited previously, and then revisited Mazamari and a friend from my previous trip. After Mazamari, I crossed the Andes again and visited a couple of high-mountain and very cold towns, then back to the coast. Going south along the coast I visited a few more towns I hadn't visited previously, then arrived in Arequipa. And I decided after a week or so that this would be where I would stay. So, here I am.

During my travels in Ecuador, I visited 36 towns/cities. In Perú, I visited 38; in Chile, only five; and in Argentina, I visited 16. In Uruguay, I visited five, and in Brazil, four. And in Paraguay, I have visited 26. In Colombia, I have visited 83, and in the photo, album are pics of 67 of those towns. That's 212 towns/cities in South America.

After having lived in Colombia for about nine and a half years, and traveling to seven more countries over the course of ten and a half months, I can make a few comparisons. The friendliest people are in the Selva region (the eastern side of the Andes Mountains) of Peru. The quietest towns are in Paraguay. The prettiest towns to look at are in Colombia (Salento, Filandia, Barichara, and many more). The most cyclist-friendly country is Colombia, but the most cyclist-friendly cities are Encarnación and Formosa. The best bakeries are in Colombia. The best coffee is in Colombia. The best beach towns are in Ecuador. The country with the most historical sites is by far Perú. The best for eco-adventures/outdoor adventures is Ecuador. The best for overall tranquility, and quiet living is Paraguay. Now, some of those could, possibly, change after I visit the Atlantic coast of Uruguay, and visit more of Brazil, but for now, that's what I think of the countries I have visited.

Some of my favorite towns are Roldanillo, Colombia; Puyo, Ecuador; Moyobamba, Perú; Arequipa, Perú; Encarnación, Paraguay; and Formosa, Argentina.

I highly recommend such a journey of any continent, get out and spend time exploring towns and cities, getting to know people, and seeing what makes each country unique. The famous tourist attractions won't do that for you. Besides, if you want to see a famous tourist attraction, well, there are multiple thousands of pictures on the internet. Use your journey to see what the countries are really like. Meet people, learn a bit of their language, and open your mind to new cultures and experiences. You will see the world through new eyes.