About Karen Catchpole, CWO (Chief Writing Officer)

Karen Catchpole helped create Sassy and Jane magazines, has freelanced for most major US women’s magazine, produced for The Jon Stewart Show and created programming for MTV and Oxygen Media.


In 2006 she left her job as deputy editor of Shop etc. and her apartment in New York City to embark on the ongoing Trans-Americas Journey, a multi-year, 200,000 mile working road trip through North, Central and South America. Karen now focuses on travel writing and her work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Afar, Escape, Outside , Action Asia, Asian Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Every Day with Rachael Ray and National Geographic Traveler as well as the travel sections of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Dallas Morning News. Her work also appears on high-end travel websites including jetsetter.com, indagare.com, itravelishop.com and travelandescape.ca (the website for Canada’s Travel Channel).


Her Trans-Americas Journey blog, which is ranked as one of the top 25 independent travel websites in the world, has also been part of the elite Lonely Planet Featured Blogger program since 2010. Karen has been profiled by WWD and More, featured on The Huffington Post and interviewed on National Geographic Weekend with Boyd Matson.




Market Day – Silvia, Colombia

Tuesday is market day in the small town of Silvia which is about two hours from Popayán in southern Colombia. If you’re looking for cheap souvenirs, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in seeing why markets remain a vital way of life for so many people in Colombia, check it out.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Women heading to the Tuesday market in Silvia, Colombia. You can see the two distinct types of hats that Guambiano women wear.

Exploring the traditional market in Silvia, Colombia

Every week, sleepy Silvia fills up with Guambiano indigenous people who come to “town” from their nearby villages to sell what they’ve grown or made and buy what they need in the very traditional market. Some tour companies bring travelers to Silvia to see the weekly market, but we only saw one or two other travelers during our exploration of the market.

Colorful Potatoes Sylvia Colombia market

Potatoes and tubers for sale included those hot pink stunners which are naturally that color.

What we did see was plenty of fruit and vegetables (including long, thin, impossibly hot pink tubers), meat, cheap clothes, hardware, medicinal plants, and all kinds of other everyday needs.

fortune parakeets Sylvia Colombia market

For a few pesos these birds will pick your fortune out of a drawer.

Perhaps not an every day need, but interesting nonetheless, were the parakeets that, for a fee, will choose a fortune for you. Also intriguing: the proliferation of glow-in-the-dark shoelaces on offer. We were looking for something much more mundane: a sheath for our machete. However, they are all too short, perhaps sized for the local population.

Guambiano indigenous Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional skirts are still commonly worn by Guambiano men in Colombia.

As usual, the shoppers were the most interesting part of the market in Silvia. Around the world it’s increasingly unusual to see men in traditional dress. Many have moved to jeans and t-shirts even in places where women and girls still wear traditional clothing. But in Silvia we saw many Guambiano men in traditional bright blue, heavy, sarong-like wrap-around skirts.

Woman Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional dress for Guambiano women in Colombia is pretty uniform: dark skirt, woven bag, hat, blue shawl. Many women personalize their look with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Guambiano women wear flowing black skirts with thin bands of color. Many men and women also wore tiny, rigid, wool bowlers perched on their heads. Some women opted for pancake flat, woven reed hats that looked like flattened tortilla warmers. Most women also wore work boots, often with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Socializing in the central square is a big part of market day in Silvia, Colombia.

Older Guambiano women, whose hands were perpetually busy spinning wool, also had unusual short haircuts that gave them poufy bobs. Many women also seemed to be in a contest to see who could wear the most white beaded necklaces.

Men Colombia market day

Many Guambiano men in Silvia, Colombia still wear traditional clothing including blue skirts, bowler hats, and scarves.

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Meet the Border Dicks!

We’ve crossed 58 borders so far on our Trans-Americas Journey road trip through the Americas. And while 90% of the border officials we’ve come across have been pros, the other 10% have been, as we say in the travel business, border dicks. They come in many shapes and sizes. Here are a few of our favorites.

Meet the border dicks!

The Career Dick – Possibly the most common border dick of all, the Career Dick is usually old and fat (the truth hurts). He or she probably sleeps in his or her uniform and boasts about their authority to all who will listen, but lost any interest in actually doing the job many, many years ago.

Problems at Argentina border crossing

The Flaccid Dick – On the border between Bolivia and Argentina we encountered a Flaccid Dick, that is: a border official who talks a big game but, when push comes to shove, doesn’t have what it takes to follow through. Our Flaccid Dick insisted that we had to remove the entire contents of our truck and put said contents through an airport-style X-ray machine. We did that for about an hour until the Flaccid Dick was over ruled by another border official and the very real limits of his power were made clear. That’s when the Flaccid Dick usually turns into the even more offensive and potentially dangerous Frustrated Dick.

Peru border crossing wait

The Out-To-Lunch Dick – Not all border dicks are male (though the majority of border officials we’ve encountered are). The first time we entered Peru we were stuck at the border for more than an hour waiting for the woman in charge to return from her hours-long lunch break.

The Pompous Dick – The border official at a crossing from Honduras into El Salvador really was just doing his job and we really did inadvertently violate Central American border rules resulting in not being allowed to enter El Salvador. But did he have to be so obnoxious about it? Turns out, yes. That’s what made him a Pompous Dick.

USA border crossings

The Picky Dick – You will not believe the hoops we had to jump through (cash, forms, reservations, letters of recommendation, inoculations) to get past Picky Dick border officials in Bolivia because of our US passports…

The Know-Nothing Dick – It is alarmingly common that customs officials do not speak to immigration officials (and vice versa). That lack of communication, and a world-class Know-Nothing Dick customs agent, created infuriating chaos during a crossing into Ecuador from Colombia. After purchasing visas at the Ecuadorean consulate in a nearby Colombian border town, we headed for the border. The problem: the consulate agent, perhaps distracted by the strong earthquake which occurred in the midst of our transaction, failed to write the number of days on both visas after they were stamped into our passports. One visa clearly noted 90 days while the other had no days noted. Despite the fact that the visa we purchased is, by law, a 90 day visa, the customs official at the border would not let our truck into Ecuador with us, claiming he did not know how many days to give the truck because our visas were unclear. After hours of explaining Ecuadorean immigration and visa law to the Know-Nothing Dick we finally begged the extremely reluctant head of immigration at the border to intervene. In what may be a world first, representatives of these two agencies spoke (so awkward) and we were finally let into Ecuador with a glare for good measure.

South American border crossings

The Chicken Little Dick – Borders are tense places under the best of circumstances. Add in a Chicken-Little-Dick border official, like the customs woman we dealt with while exiting Peru and entering Chile where delays caused by TWO tire blowouts on the road to the border had resulted in overstaying our visa and truck importation permit by 14 hours. But surely there’s a way to overcome such an unavoidable and inadvertent breaking of the rules, no? Well, yes. But the Chicken-Little-Dick border agent had to make it as nerve-wracking as possible with her end of the world attitude, pointing out that under Peruvian law any importation permit overstay gives officials the right to confiscate our vehicle. Blood pressure rising, we spent two days rectifying the problem with Peruvian officials, employing a time-tested recipe of begging, Spanish language documentation, and the help of local businessmen. Unbeknownst to us, the Chicken-Little-Dick border official was reprimanded for her handling of our situation, so when we returned to the border with our papers in order she had transformed into a particularly sour Mopey Dick.

The Half-Hearted Dick – During a crossing from Peru to Chile, a Chilean customs official made a lot of noise about needing to see EVERYTHING in our truck. Lucky for us he was a Half-Hearted Dick and almost immediately lost the will to follow through on his threats and we passed without unpacking.

Have you come across other types of border dicks in your travels? Tell us about them in the comments section, below.

Central American border crossings

 

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One Night Stands – Popayán, Colombia

We had more one night stands in Popayán than in any other city or town in Colombia. That’s because when you’re traveling to or from the Ecuador border (which we did five times), Popayán is perfectly positioned as a break journey for the night. People rave about the city’s Colonial architecture and the cuisine, so here’s what you need to know about the travel basics in Popayán.

Iglesia San Francisco church - Popoyan, Colombia

Popayán’s San Francisco church.

What to do in Popayán

Some guidebooks gush about the Colonial architecture in Popayán which is primarily white washed, giving the town the horribly overused nickname “The White City.” Some even compare the architecture in Popayán, which dates back to 1537, to that in Cartagena, which is patently ridiculous. We could rattle off a half-dozen Colombian towns that offer more impressive Colonial architecture, but you be the judge.

The white city - Popoyan Colombia street scene

They don’t call Popayán “The White City” for nothing.

There are a number of museums in town, including the Museo Nacional Guillermo Valencia (free, closed Mondays) which is an 18th century building full of memorabilia about this Popayán-born poet. Visit the Casa Museo Guillermo León Valencia (free, closed Mondays) to learn about the life of the poet’s father who was President of Colombia.

The Casa Museo Negret museum of modern art was being refurbished when we were last in Popayán, but it looked promising. And there’s also a religious art museum and a number of churches in town.

Popoyan historic bridges Puente de la Custodia or Puente chiquita 1731

Puente de la Custodia, just one of the charming little bridges in Popayán.

If bridges are your thing you’ll love Popayán which has a few architecturally unique and historically important examples. Visiting them creates a pleasant walking tour.

The nearby Puracé Volcano is the only active volcano in Colombia that you can summit. Doable as a long day trip from Popayán, the volcano is 35 miles (55km) from Popayán and the hike up takes a few hours.

If you like festivals, plan to visit Popayán during Easter when the town puts on a massive Semana Santa celebration. There are annual food festivals as well during which you can sample the local delicacies which always eluded us.

Iglesia Santo Domingo church Popoyan Colombia

Iglesia Santo Domingo in Popayán, Colombia.

Eating in Popayán

In 2005 Popayán was named a Creative City of Gastronomy by UNESCO but we usually struggled to find much to eat, especially when we arrived late in the evening as we were hoofing it to or from the border. On our first late-night arrival in Popayán almost everything was closed except carts on the square selling anemic and suspiciously tepid “burgers.”

street food truck Popoyan Colombia

Yes, that food truck says “Pignick.”

Sadly, we came across the “Pignick” cart selling lechona after we’d already eaten at El Churrasco which is located a few blocks off the square. Popayán is not cheap by Colombian standards, but at least the portions of meat and salad at El Churrasco (around COP 16,000 or about US$6) were big and tasty. Tip: order the junior half portion if you’re not starving.

On a subsequent visit we ate at Restaurante Italiano y Pizzeria which has better-than-average pizzas (29,000 COP or about US$10) and a set lunch menu for 7,500 COP (about US$2.60). We really wanted to try the traditional pipian empanadas (stuffed with a peanut-based filling) which are famous at a place called La Fresa, but it was never open when we were in town.

Popoyan street scene colonial architecture white city

Some of the Colonial architecture in Popayán, Colombia dates back to 1537.

Sleeping in Popayan

We always stayed at Hotel Colonial (70,000 COP, or about US$24, for a private double room with bathroom, WiFi, breakfast and parking in a nearby secure lot). As we’ve already noted, Popayán is pricey and this hotel is the best value we found with a safe and roomy parking area. There are some recommended hostels in town, but they don’t have parking.

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10 Years on the Road: 183,000 Miles Backward?

Monday marks the 10 year anniversary of our road trip through North, Central, and South America. That’s 3,653 days of full-time travel in the Americas. It’s been a great decade full of the kinds of ups and downs that come with life on the road. We mean that literally and figurative. A couple of weeks ago we reached our highest point on the road so far at 15,916 feet (4,851 meters) on the drive from the Paso de Jama border crossing from Argentina into Chile. After around 183,000 miles (28,000 km) we’re getting pretty good at this and we’re looking forward to many, many more years on the road as we continue south to Tierra del Fuego, then back up again. However, in one important way we fear we’re going backward.

Crossing Paso de Jama Aregentina to Chile

A couple of weeks ago we crossed from Argentina into Chile and headed to the highest point on the road (so far).

The main goal of the Trans-Americas Journey is to take our careers as travel journalists on the road to be better at our jobs and better at life. But our little road trip has always had a trickier subtext.

Here’s what happened

On September 10, 2001 we were focused on building a long-term working trip through Africa. Then the attacks of September 11 happened. We lived three blocks from the Twin Towers and when then President George W. Bush stood on a pile of debris in our backyard, picked up a megaphone, and vowed to get “them” it struck us as blindly jingoistic and dangerous.

Somehow “they” were going to get “us” if “we” didn’t get “them” first. Those vague divisions only got more pronounced: if you weren’t with us you were against us and that went for anyone outside or inside the US. Red states and blue states weren’t far behind.

We realized that we didn’t understand our own country and questioned why we’d spent so many years traveling so far from home. We put our Africa plans on the shelf for another day and decided to focus on the US and her neighbors instead. The Trans-Americas Journey was born. Feel free to read more about how the attacks of September 11 inspired our Trans-Americas Journey.

Bald Eagle flying

We’ve come close to losing this iconic symbol of US freedom once before.

Many Americas & many Americans

Even as we were laying the considerable ground work needed to create a working road trip through the Americas, we had a larger goal in mind: to look at what it means to be good global neighbors as the United States of America seemed to be getting more and more isolationist. Who is “us”? Who is “them”? And what about a more global or even regional concept of “we”?

After all, everyone from North, Central, and South America is American, not just those of us from the United States. There are many Americas and many Americans and there’s strength in that. The ‘S’ after the word America in the name of our project? That’s not a typo.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

If this wall could talk…

People born in Canada are American. People born in Chile are American. People born in Uruguay are American. People born in Peru are American. People born in Guatemala are American. People born in Mexico are American.

We believe that understanding that small detail creates a crucial shift in perspective which turns the idea of “us and them” into the much more beneficial idea of “we.” Anyone who’s traveled knows this already because many of the most fundamentally good elements of travel come from the fact that it’s an act of being together, not apart.

On the road through three Presidents

We spent the first 2.5 years of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip primarily in the US where George W. Bush was in his second term. Slowly, tentatively US citizens were coming to terms with new fears about domestic terrorism (fears much of the rest of the world had been grappling with for years).

Some people we met were becoming more and more insular. Others, however, believed that disengaging from the world or going to war with it weren’t the only options, or even the best ones. Those people wanted a middle ground where they could have security without fearing everything and everyone around them.

Airstream Mount Ranier National Park

We listened to the historic nomination of Barrack Obama as the Democratic Presidential candidate in 2008 in this Airstream in this campsite in this US national park.

We listened to the 2008 Democratic National Convention on satellite radio in an Airstream in a campsite in Mount Rainier National Park. By the time we’d crossed south into Mexico President Barrack Obama was well into his first term and we felt that the search for middle ground was growing in the US, like a pendulum becoming less and less polarized as it slows down and lingers in the mid-swing.

During Obama’s second term, our road trip moved further south through Central America and we traveled with a feeling that, despite clear and present problems, the world was predominantly on the right track. The pendulum was still slowing and finding its sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

The pendulum swings

We followed the most recent US Presidential election cycle on TVs throughout South America. We voted at the US embassy in Brasilia. We watched the results come in at our friend Mauro’s apartment in Sao Paulo. Now, rather than settling down to find middle ground, the pendulum of “us and them” in the US seems to be swinging more wildly than ever.

Absentee ballots Brasilia, Brazil

Our 2016 Presidential election ballots being dropped off at the US embassy in Brasilia, Brazil.

The blind, jingoistic rhetoric of “we” better get “them” before “they” get “us” is back and it’s louder than ever. It also now applies to more than just suspected terrorists and comes with a fresh coat of racism put on with a very wide brush.

Because of our 10 years anniversary, journalists have been asking us a lot of questions including questions about what we’ve learned in all that time on the road. That one always stumps us. However, one thing we’ve learned is that we all need “we” and we’re all better together than we are when we’re divided.

Also, we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

Revisit our 5 Year Road-a-versary

Revisit our 9 Year Road-a-versay

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Travel Guide to the Pueblos Patrimonio of Colombia

During our time in Colombia we made a point of traveling to as many of the colonial towns on the country’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio as we could. In the end, we explored 13 of the 17 towns currently on the list. Here’s why you should too.

The Pueblos Patrimonio of Colombia

The Colombian government operates a program called Pueblos Patrimonio which recognizes towns in the country which retain a remarkable amount of Colonial architecture, living history, and thriving traditions. Here’s a travel snapshot of the 13 Pueblos Patrimonio in Colombia that we visited.

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Layva Colombia Pueblo Patrimonio

Close to Bogotá, this extremely popular pueblo deserves more than just a day trip.

 

Santa Cruz de Mompox

Iglesia de la Concepcion - Mompox, Colombia

Time stands still, history is alive and an important part of the essence of Colombia is at hand in Mompox (sometimes called Mompos). This riverside stunner is getting easier and easier to reach, so no more excuses.

 

Barrichara

Barichara Colombia

Our choice for most beautiful Colonial town in Colombia. Hands down.

 

Honda

street Honda, Colombia

Honda did not make a good first impression, but we warmed up (a lot) to a great boutique hotel and meaty alfresco dining in this steamy town.

 

Aguadas

Traditional hat weaver in Aguadas, Colombia

We spent  just a few hours in Aguadas, but that was enough to get an impressive look at the town’s hat-making heritage and get some video of the artists at work (below).

 

Santa fe de Antioquia

Parque Principal Santa Fe de Antioquia Colombia

A creative vibe and a legit place in Colombian history make Santa fe de Antioquia a top day trip choice from Medellin.

 

Salamina

Salamina Colombia

The weirdest breakfast and tallest palms in Colombia can be enjoyed in and around Salamina.

 

Jardin

Plaza Jardin Colombia

Outdoor adventure and one of the most charming plazas in Colombia await in Jardin.

 

Guadalajara de Buga

Holy Water Ale cervesaria - Buga, Colombia

Buga, as it’s usually called, is home of a miracle which pilgrims still come to celebrate. It’s also home to Colombia’s only Bed & Beer hostel with it’s own microbrewery.

 

San Juan Girón

Colonial Giron Colombia

Called the “white city” because of the amount of whitewashed Colonial buildings, Girón offers good food and a charming little hotel as well.

 

Jerico

Jerico, Colombia

Colombia’s first saint and its beloved traditional man bag are both from Jerico. And that’s not all.

 

Guaduas

Guadas, Colom,bia Peublo Patrimonial

We did not spend the night in Guaduas, but we did tour through long enough to appreciate the town’s picturesque church and time-worn cobblestone square.

 

Monguí

Mongui Colombia Pueblo Patrimonial

Altitude, Andes, and a whole lot of soccer balls–all in little Monguí.

 

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Come for the Crucifix, Stay for the Craft Beer – Buga, Colombia

There are two miraculous reasons to travel to Guadalajara de Buga. One involves a crucifix. The other involves craft beer.

Holy Water Ale cervesaria - Buga, Colombia

Mmmmm…..craft beer.

The miraculous crucifix of Buga

Guadalajara de Buga (usually simply called Buga) is just 45 miles (70 km) from Cali, but the tranquility of this colonial town, whose architecture and living tradition earned it a place on Colombia’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio, makes Buga feel a world away from the big city.

Founded in 1555, Buga is one of the oldest cities in Colombia and its main claim to fame is a story that’s nearly as old. As the legend goes, an indigenous washer woman was trying to save money to buy a crucifix. She finally washed enough clothes in the local river to save the money needed to buy a simple crucifix. However, as she was on her way to make the purchase she saw a neighbor being hauled off to jail because of unpaid debts.

Instead of buying the crucifix, the woman paid off her neighbor’s debts. When she returned to work in the river she noticed something shiny in the water and discovered  a small crucifix floating by. She grabbed it and brought it home where the crucifix continued to grow and grow.

Today, the legend of the indigenous washer woman and her miraculously growing crucifix is marked by The Lord of the Miracles, a distinct dark-skinned Christ on the cross, which is housed in the Basilica del Senor de los Milagros in Buga. Every year millions of pilgrims visit the pink church.

The miraculous craft beer of Buga

If you worship at the house of hops, you’re in luck as well.

Stefan Schnur Buga microbrewery & hostal

Brew master Stefan Schnur with some of his Holy Water Ale beers made in Buga, Colombia.

When German Stefan Schnur arrived in Buga he did not intend to create the only bed & beer hostel in Colombia, but that’s what he did when he opened the Buga Hostel in 2011.

The hostel is affordable with standard hostel accommodation. The Holy Water Ale brew pub and cafe attached to the hostel, however, is a craft beer miracle with nine different beers brewed by Stefan at a small, nearby brewery. There’s also an inventive menu including homemade bread and legit pizzas with locally made sausage and other great toppings on homemade crust. Don’t miss happy hour.

Holy Water Ale brew pub - Buga, Colombia

The Holy Water brew pub, part of the Buga Hostel in Colombia.

 

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