Go Now! A New Dam Threatens the Biggest Waterfall in Ecuador – Cascada San Rafael, Ecuador

Cascada San Rafael (San Rafael Waterfall) is the tallest waterfall in Ecuador at 430 feet (131 meters). It’s also the biggest waterfall by volume in the country and 24th biggest by volume in the world with an estimated water flow of 14,125 cubic feet (400 cubic meters) per second according to this site for waterfall geeks. But that’s about to change. Environmentalists fear that a new dam will affect the flow of this monster falls. We’ve visited the biggest waterfall in Ecuador three times, most recently just a few days ago, to see what’s going on. There will be drone footage…

Cascada San Rafael Ecuador pre Coca Coda Sinclair Hydro Project

Cascada San Rafael is the biggest waterfall in Ecuador. For now.

A new dam threatens the biggest waterfall in Ecuador

Though Ecuador is a major oil producer, the country, like many of its Latin neighbors, is eager to begin harnessing its rivers to produce hydroelectric power. That sounds great, but there’s a twist.

In recent years China has established an enormous trade presence in Latin America where Chinese companies are buying up natural resources. In some major Latin markets China is now a bigger trading partner than the US or Europe. In Ecuador, China has signed contracts to buy much of the country’s crude oil which comes from controversial drilling operations in the Amazon–in part as payment for public works projects that China is completing inside Ecuador, including a collection of dams to produce hydro power.

The Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project on the Coca River is being built by a Chinese company called Sinohydro. So many workers were brought in from China to work on the  massive project that entire towns in the region have become sinofied. Road signs and safety signs now appear in Spanish and Chinese.

Sinohydro Coco Coda Sinclair signs Spanish and Chinese

An influx of Chinese workers building dams across Ecuador have turned this town bilingual.

Part of the project, which includes multiple dams, can be seen from the road and it’s this installation, about 11 miles (19 km) from the San Rafael Waterfall that may impact the flow. Some environmental groups, like International Rivers, fear San Rafael could be nearly dried up by the hydro project and point to Ecuador’s second highest falls, Agoyan Waterfall, which has already been severely reduced by a different hydro project.

Sinohydro Coco Coda Sinclair dam capatacion

Environmentalists fear that this portion of the massive Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project dam and hydro project in Ecuador could mean the end of the biggest waterfall in the country.

Changes are already visible

The first time we visited San Rafael Waterfall in February 2014 the trail was closed because of a recent landslide. The second time we visited the falls, in late December 2014, it looked like the image below left.

Comparison of Cascada San Rafeal Falls before after landslide and Coca Coda Sinclair Hydro project

A view of San Rafael Waterfall in February 2014 is on the left and a view of the same waterfall from September 2015 is on the right.

The third time we visited the waterfall, in late September 2015 (above right), landslides around the falls had changed the flow and there seemed to be less water in general coming over he edge. The top of the falls is clearly a few feet higher on the left. This could be seasonal or from the dam, who knows.

San Rafael Falls, largest waterfall in Ecuador Ecuador

San Rafael Waterfall in September 2015. A new dam and hydro project, expected to be completed and online in 2016, could alter things dramatically.

During our most recent visit we were able to put our DJI Phantom 3 Professional quadcopter up in the air to get some aerial drone footage of San Rafael Waterfall. Check it out below.

The Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project is expected to be completed in 2016 and when it’s in full operation it will undoubtedly alter the flow that feeds the San Rafael Waterfall. The question is: how much?

Go Now! Visiting San Rafael Waterfall

The San Rafael Waterfall is within the massive Cayambe-Coca National Park and the trail head is just off the highway that runs between Quito and Tena, Coca or Lago Agrio (which are all jumping off points for Amazon and Cuyabeno trips). Like all national parks and reserves in Ecuador (except Galapagos Islands National Park), entry is free. There are clean bathrooms and an enormous stuffed fake Andean Bear (aka, spectacled bear) at the small ranger station. You’ll need to present your passport and get checked in.

There’s a well-made, mostly shaded trail (more like a small dirt road) that travels down to an elevated platform with excellent views of the entire waterfall. Allow about 30 minutes each way at a reasonable pace.

Check out the Hosteria El Reventador as a place to spend the night. It’s just a stone’s throw from the trail head.

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Music, Mountains and Much More to Come

In April, after years of pain, failed attempts at non-surgical remedies and increasingly bad arthritis, Karen had hip replacement surgery in California. Prior to getting her artificial hip (pictured below), dancing and hiking were utterly out of the question. We are happy to report that Karen’s brand new hip, made of titanium, plastic and ceramic and implanted using the less invasive anterior method, has been a game changer. Here’s how music and mountains have played a major role in her new mobility with so much more to come.

Karen's artificial hip replacement surgery

Karen’s actual new right hip.

Letting the music take control

Four days after surgery Karen started physical therapy. A week after surgery Karen ditched her walker (though we liked the racy colors and the fact that it was called Drive). A few weeks after that she was ready to do some dancing.

Karen and her Drive walker

Karen coming home not even 26 hours after hip replacement surgery.

Just in time, the Tedeschi Trucks Band (aka, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks) and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings rolled into town to perform some live music at the Vina Robles Ampitheatre, an outdoor venue at a winery in Paso Robles, California. Live music from musicians we love AND wine AND a good hip? Hell yes.

Tedeschi Trucks Band with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Left to right: Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Sharon Jones performing at the Vina Robles Ampitheatre.

This was not only an opportunity to break in the hip, so to speak, but a real return to something that we both love to do: dancing to live music. The Vina Robles Ampitheatre is located in beautiful Paso Robles wine country. It’s spacious and comfortable and the sound and sight lines were great (we later learned that a friend who’s now a head honcho at Knitting Factory Entertainment was involved in its design, so, duh).

Vina Robles Amphitheater Paso Robles California

Vina Robles Ampitheater in Paso Robles, California.

The wine from the Vina Robles winery was really good too and we recommend splurging on the VIP tickets when you go to the ampitheatre because they get you access to a small outdoor wine and beer garden and great prices ($10 off bottles of wine and $5 beers including local microbrews) in the hours leading up to the start of live music. The ribs they were selling ($15 per plate with a big array of sides) also looked awesome and they have terrific plastic carafes and plastic stemless wine glasses so you can pour any undrunk wine into the carafe and take it to your seat with you.

Heading to the mountains on her new hip

Within a few months of surgery Karen was taking walks of up to six miles (3.2 km) with Eric’s mom (though we suspect she slowed down for Karen). However, Karen hadn’t yet strayed off the pavement. We got the chance to go off-roading in, of all places, Bogota, Colombia.The busting capital city of the country is mostly an urban concrete jungle but it’s got a secret.

Quebrada la Vieja hike Bogota

Karen heading to the mountains with her new hip on the Quebrada la Vieja trail in Bogota, Colombia.

The trail head for the Quebrada la Vieja trail (free, open from 5:30 am to 10:00 am, no dogs allowed) is located in the midst of a swanky neighborhood of fancy apartment buildings on the edge of the city. It immediately plunges hikers into verdant, lush mountain terrain complete with a babbling brook, wooded hillsides and a challenging trail with steep inclines, water crossings, uneven terrain and, on weekends, a lot of other hikers. More than 1,000 people entered the area the Saturday morning we hiked there (TIP: the trail is MUCH less crowded on weekday mornings).

Bogota view Alto de la Virgin Quebrada la Vieja hike Bogota

A view of Bogota from the Quebrada la Vieja trail in the mountains above Colombia’s capital city.

We spent two hours round trip on the trail with our friend Chef Paula Silva who was taking a nature break before returning to work at her Hippie restaurant. It’s just shy of two miles (3.2 km) one way from the trail head up steep inclines that gain 1,000 feet (300 meters) and take hikers over rocks, creeks, mud and a fairytale pine forest before reaching the Alto de la Virgin monument to the Virgin Marry and a vista that offers sweeping views of Bogota below.

It was hard to believe we were surrounded by nature yet so close to so much concrete.

Quebrada la Vieja trail Bogota

Karen putting her new hip through its paces on the Quebrada la Vieja trail in Bogota, Colombia.

While no one would accuse Karen of breaking any land speed records, she did accomplish the ascents, descents and terrain with no walking stick and, most importantly, no limping and no pain.

That clearly called for a celebration, so we headed to Julia Pizzeria to try the best pizza in Bogota — cooked in a wood fired oven and everything.

Julia pizza Bogota

Post-hike celebration pizza at the totally legit Julia Pizzeria in Bogota.

As Karen continues to get stronger and more and more mobile (Machu Pichu here we come!), we want to send our thanks to Dr. Daniel Woods of Central Coast Orthopedic in San Luis Obispo, California for the care and expertise he employed before, during and after Karen’s hip replacement surgery along with his medical assistant, Jill, for her responsiveness and endless patience and helpfulness.


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Food Tour: Chicharrón, Intestines & Blood Sausage – Medellin, Colombia

Medellin is not a city known for gourmet cuisine. There are, however, plenty of traditional regional specialties to try when you travel to Medellin. Here’s what happened when we tried a beloved local dish called Bandeja Paisa for the first time…And it doesn’t stop there. The second largest city in Colombia is full of hole-in-the-wall or street corner eateries serving foods that are unique to the region. Medellin City Services offers a three hour food tour of Medellin that includes some of the best places to try chicharrón, cow intestines and blood sausage. It’s not a healthy tour, but it is a happy tour!

Camilo Medellin City Services Food Tour

From left to right: Camillo (owner of Medellin City Services), Karen, Gloria (of chicharrón fame) and David Lee (of MedellinLiving.com)

Is this the best chicharrón in Medellin?

La Gloria de La Gloria in the Envigado area of Medellin, has been turning out some of the best chicharrón (fried pig skin with hunks of fat and meat attached) in the city for nearly 30 years. The modest place is presided over by Gloria herself and she’s often got a bottle of aguardiente (local sugarcane and anise hooch) in her hands and she’s not afraid to share it.  When we introduced ourselves she took our hands and offered us a shot.

The place isn’t much to look at except for the glass display case which is full of gorgeous, succulent meat. The ribs are wonderfully tender and the chicharrón lives up to its fame: meaty, rich and not overly salty.

Chicharron Gloria de la Gloria in Envigado

The display case at La Gloria de la Gloria and its succulent contents including the famous chicharrón front and center.

Chunchurria is just a fancy word for cow intestines

Herman’s street cart is spotlessly clean and that’s important when you’re about to eat the small intestine of a cow, aka chunchurria (also called chunchullo). Taken from young bulls called novillos, the grilled small intestines, which are chopped, spiced and griddle fried then served in a styrofoam cup, are about how you’d imagine: pungent and slightly rubbery.

Chunchullo Chinchulin Chunchurria intestines Medellin

Herman, left, runs the cleanest street stand in Medellin where he fries up cow intestines.

Not all blood sausages are created equal

Blood sausage, called morcilla, are a staple throughout Colombia but they very greatly in quality. The worst morcilla is dry and squishy and overly gamey. The best examples are a rich mix of rice, blood and seasoning inside a snappy casing. That’s the type served at El Hijo de Estela, a popular, casual, open-air restaurant in the foothills above Medellin. Even if you don’t think you’re going to like blood sausage this is the place to give it a whirl and they serve lots of other well-made, meat-centric dishes and delicious patacones (fried plantain rounds).

Morcilla blood sausage El Hijo de Estela Medellin

Morcilla (blood sausage) and patacones (fried plantain patties) at El Hijo de Estela in Medellin, Colombia.

A buñuelo as big as your head

A buñuelo is a ball of dough and cheese that’s deep fried until it’s golden and crispy on the outside and pale and fluffy on the inside. It’s a ubiquitous snack in Colombia and best served fresh out of the fryer. They are invariably, impossibly perfectly round and usually the size of a bloated golf ball.

El Pergrino Bunuelo Sabaneta Medellin

El Pergrino in the Sabaneta neighborhood of Medellin serves buñuelos that are nearly as big as softballs.

However, at El Pergrino (above) in the Sabaneta area of the city they make ’em big. Really big. Like the size of a softball big (below). Perfect for sharing.


The softball-size buñuelos at El Pergrino in Medellin are perfect for sharing.

Food tour special offer: Say “The Trans-Americas Journey sent me” when booking and get this food tour of Medellin for US$75 instead of US$95.

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