Colombia and Ecuador are not the most popular South American tourist pick. They don’t have the same allure as Carnival in Rio, or Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. But they still have a lot to offer. With diverse climatic regions (ranging from the Amazon to 19,000 foot volcanos to Pacific coast beaches) they are “biodiversity hotspots.” Colombia has more plant and animal species per square kilometer than any other country in the world. And then of course there are all the Spanish Churches, Aztec and Incan ruins and vibrant cities.
Colombia has recovered from the worst of the drug days of the 1990s (even though you can still visit the Pablo Escobar museum in Medellin!). A peace treaty with the FARC is now in the works. Both countries have oil which is both a blessing and a curse. Too much black gold means you can put off the heavy lifting of nation building. Oil is the major export in the region. Colombia is doing better now than Ecuador dealing with the decline in crude prices but both countries are stable and managing.
I spent 12 days in Bogota, Medellin and Quito and all three are worth a second visit. I am a Lonely Planet guidebook aficionado and they describe well all the sights and sounds. I will add two offbeat observations here. The first is about money. Colombia uses the peso which has depreciated about 25% the past year against the dollar. This makes their coffee and oil exports more profitable but also means imports from the developed world are pricier. Ecuador does not have its own currency. It dollarized back in 2000. This means they use the same bills and coins we do here in the U.S. (They also enthusiastically use the Sacajawea dollar coin, something that has not caught on here). Dollarizing has pluses and minuses. The plus is that investors are assured of a stable currency. No chance of a local currency collapse in Ecuador. But the downside is dollarization ties many prices and interest rates to the U.S. A gallon of gas and the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac are about the same in Quito as in the U.S. This is fine for the wealthy but not for the poor. There is a lot of shopping now by Ecuadorians across the Colombian border. Prices are cheaper there. Diapers have replaced cocaine as the trade of choice so to speak!
My second observation has to do with art and panhandling. Colombia and Ecuador are full of street musicians, rappers, break dancers, etc. Butthere are still surprises (picture above). Two street performers here tie a rope to a telephone pole and when the light turns red they run across and connect the rope to a hook on the other side. One performer jumps up on the rope and starts juggling. The other mounts a unicycle, balances a ball on his head and juggles with the other. They do this for 20 seconds or so, then jump down, disconnect the rope and run through traffic collecting money. I have seen a lot of street performances – but not this. Needless to say I left a BIG tip.