After a long delay with boarding the flight I almost missed I finally arrived to Colombia, my first new country in South America. I had made friends with an American couple that had been living in Costa Rica for two years and were also visiting Colombia for the first time, we were staying in the same neighbourhood and as the last bus to the city had already left I asked if I could catch a cab with them.
In the morning I met two kiwi girls at breakfast who told me about a walking tour they were doing that afternoon, so I decided to sign up. I met the guide in the afternoon near the CBD and started an incredibly comprehensive tour of the city of Medellin and its overarching history and more famous recent history; namely the drug wars in the 80s and 90s. Medellin is an interesting city with a mish mash of classic European architecture and modern buildings, which has undergone an intensive overhaul to shed its bad reputation. In one example of a European meets Colombian aesthetic a beautiful cathedral with black and white brick was being built by a European architect, but he got so fed up with the Colombians complaining about the desgin that he left it incomplete, and instead of finishing his plans the locals just put up a basic retaining wall to finish it, It looks quite comical.
Next to this cathedral are statues made by famous Medellin artist Fernando Botero, often referred to as “the fat statues”. They are however actually intentionally disproportionate; so you might have a tiny man on a giant horse or a huge lady with a tiny head. In one of the more sad histories of Medellin during the drug wars a bomb was placed under one of the statues ripping it apart and killing 20 people, the statue remains in its mangled form with a new statue next to it to compare the damage and as a reminder of the terrible violence that happened during that period prior to Escobar’s assassination. Coincidentally I started watching the netflix show Narcos which is a docu-drama about this period, although obviously exaggerated to a certain degree it does base the story on historical facts and has news clips and photos from that period. Definitely worth a watch if you are interested in the history!
On my final day I wandered down to the impressive museum of modern art, followed by catching a cable car up the hill connecting the city with the mountain neighbourhoods which provided an incredible view over Medellin. After eating delicious food (Taiwanese, Indian, Colombian) and having the most delicious coffee in Melbourne style trendy cafes I was sad to leave Medellin.
The following morning I caught a shuttle to the mountain town of Salento known as the coffee zone. As I arrived to Salento the heavens opened up and bucketed down an intense rain storm, and as I waited for the rain to pass I was chatted to another bus passenger as he lamented that there is hardly any accommodation left in Salento as there is a festival happening. I didn’t know this and so had turned up without any accommodation booked and now had the prospect of walking through the rain trying to find a bed in a town heaving with tourists. Luckily one of the other passengers was in the same position and had a working phone so he called around until he found somewhere with space, and so after waiting an hour for the rain to pass and with no change in the weather I set out with my half broken umbrella to find this one hostel that may have a bed. I arrived and thankfully a room was available, the hostel was very “rustic” but had beautiful views overlooking the coffee farm.
I went exploring in to the town to find some food, having not eating anything since breakfast. I walked past a family home selling fresh arepas, a small flat corn bread with cheese on it and devoured two, next I went to the best coffee house in town and drank a espresso shot with condensed milk followed by dropping in to a dessert cafe I happened to walk past. This is what happens when I don’t eat lunch. The square was pumping by this point and children and grandmas alike were shaking it to Enrique Iglesias, it reminded me so much of Mexico.
The following morning I caught a Jeep up the mountain to the Valley de Cocora for a 5 hour hike through gorgeous countryside ending in a valley of wax palms. It is without a doubt the most beautiful place I have ever been, I literally could not believe it looked like that. After another Jeep ride back where some crazy Colombians hung off the back
bumper and got soaked during a torrential rain storm I arrived back in town to sit down for some delicous local creamy trout soup followed by another hike up the mirador lookout to view the town and the valley. I finally returned to my hostel for a shower and joined some other hostel folk for dinner in the city. The town was crammed with people watching local cumbia bands and DJs pumping out the obligatory reggaeton. I danced in the main square with people holding kids on their shoulders and grandmas dancing next to me and thought again about how much I love Colombia.
On my final day I slept in my comfy bed with the rain pattering around me outside and finally got up for a delicious breakfast before hitting a coffee tour at the plantation I had been staying at. The small finca overlooked a gorgeous valley and grew coffee, bananas and pineapples. The tour was in Spanish so I probably only understood about 50% of what the guide said, but it was good practise. We saw the process of how the coffee was grown, roasted, ground and finally consumed. I had read that coffee will be one of the first consumables to be affected by global warming, and it was evident when I visited Salento as throughout the town the water was turned off for 2/3 of the day, and in one cafe I visited they had decided to close the toilets to visitors as there simply was not enough water. So enjoy your cup of coffee while you still can!
To get to Bogota I teamed up with a girl I had met on the bus coming in to Salento to catch the night bus together, safety in numbers! After a manic line up trying to get from Salento to the larger town where I would catch the bus to Bogota we finally managed to secure some seats arriving around 8pm. We had intended to catch an 11.30pm bus so that we would arrive in Bogota around 8am but due to the public holiday these weren’t running, all the buses were leaving in the next 45 minutes. After running around between the companies we found one with seats and settled in. I now have a backpack that is able to be locked specifically for night buses, and it was lucky I did have it as throughout the bus ride I caught my seatmate turn fully around and glance at me three times to see if I was awake. Subtle indeed. However we thankfully arrived with all our stuff and caught a cab to our hostel.
Through a travelling website I had organised a pet sitting gig in Bogota for two weeks, I thought it would be lovely to live as a local for two weeks, plus I got to look after cats and dogs! The night after my arrival I hopped in a cab to the other side of Bogota where we pulled up in to a block of apartments. I was a bit nervous as I knocked on the door and then a lady named Andrea opened the door. That was a bit strange as I had organised this with a man named Juan. Andrea explained that she was pet sitting as well and that she had just arrived an hour before, she thought that this small corner with a shabby couch might be where I was sleeping. As I surveyed the room I could see two dogs, four cats, and a lot of piss, shit and vomit. Had I made a mistake? I think I had made a mistake. I stood there for half an hour deciding whether to stay or go. In the end I decided to leave. When I got in a cab and sped back towards my original hostel I was flooded with relief. I had organised the pet sitting months before but it was all over in less than an hour, and so I arrived back to the hostel disappointed but happy to be back in a place free of pet bodily fluids.
The next morning I went on a cycling tour through the city, careening through the streets, up the wrong way of a highway and on footpaths. Our guide took us through some of the poorer neighbourhoods of Bogota to show the beautiful and politically charged graffiti adorning the walls. I am always weary of going to poorer neighbourhoods as a tourist, not because I am afraid but more because I don’t want to participate in making poverty a spectacle, and as we visited one of the neighbourhoods I could feel the resentment from some of the locals. As we were watching some local rappers a guy crouched down in front of me and just watched me and then as he left yelled goodbye motherfuckers, and another further along tried to kick one of the cyclists.
After this we visited a local market and tasted some delicious fruit I hadn’t tried before such as borojo, lulo and some giant local passion fruit. To finish the tour we joined some locals in a game of Tejo, where you throw polished rocks at small explosives. It is the only game I was terrified to hit the target, the noise was so loud.
The next few days I visited the gold museum featuring pre-columbus jewellery and artifacts, as well as catching the cable car up to a church on a hill (3000 metres up) and visiting the museo nacional.
I wandered through the streets visiting numerous museums and seeing a local guinea pig racing game and llamas roaming the streets with their owners touting rides for children. Unfortunately Bogota was where I finally got a dose of the travelers sickness, and spent the Saturday chugging antibiotics and lying in bed squirming through cramps. Thankfully the following day I was feeling much better and it being my last day in Bogota I visited the Botero museum and wandered through the streets for the last time.
The following morning I rose early to travel to Villa de Levya, a small colonial town to the north of Bogota. I was looking forward to some quiet time and hiking after a week in Bogota. As usual the bus ride took twice as long as it said it would but I finally arrived to the small quaint town in the late afternoon. I hiked up to the hostel I was staying at and looked out over the gorgeous valley, and while I was sitting in the lounge I discovered that several new puppies had just been born! That night I went to dinner and Tejo with some new friends, and truly discovered that I am the worst throw in the world as locals dodged out of the way while I tried to hit the target but got closer to the crowd. Whilst in Villa De Levya I hiked to a paleontology and fossil museum to see the most well preserved fossils I have ever seen. I also found a delicious cake place that also served aeropress coffee, delighting my inner coffee snob.
After four nights I left north west for San Gil, a small town known for its hiking and adventure sports where I spent a couple of days hiking to swimming spots and waterfalls. I was planning on going straight back to Bogota but instead joined a couple of folks on a hiking tour through the countryside walking from town to town. We started the first leg of our hike quite late on Monday afternoon, which turned out to be a mistake as we had to hike up a huge hill in the afternoon heat. Once we reached the top our relief turned to anxiety as we realised we were lost. Eventually we got back on the right track and arrived in the small town of Barachara late that afternoon, where we checked in to a hostel and went up to the mirador to watch the sun set. Afterwards we found some delicious goat hamburgers made with corn arepas, and devoured some local ice cream. The next morning we rose at 6am to get a good start to the hike and avoid the heat. When I got up I noticed I had bites all over my body, having seen a million mosquito’s I figured it was that but later discovered I had yet again got the dreaded bed bugs! We hiked a beautiful walk through the countryside as the sun came up from Barachara to Guane where we had breakfast. Next was the more substantial walk from Guane to Villa Nueva, about 7km mostly on an incline. I was hiking with an Italian guy named Jon-Marie, and an Australian girl named Gina. It turned out Gina had not hiked much before and was so slow we would have to stop every ten minutes for ten minutes waiting for Gina to catch up. Unfortunately this meant that instead of arriving at Villa Nueva in the late morning avoiding the heat we were stuck hiking right through the intense heat of the day until 2.30pm. Eventually we arrived exhausted and sweaty to Villa Nueva and devoured lunch before jumping on a bus back to San Gil.
Gina had decided to come to the desert with me so the next morning we jumped on a long bus back to Bogota arriving around 7pm exhausted and starving. This time I decided to go to a different neighbourhood so we stayed in the very lovely middle class neighbourhood of Chapinero, and we were very excited to find that there was a good Asian food
restaurant nearby. For the first time since Melbourne I devoured Pad Thai and Nasi Goreng, I was so happy!
In the morning we got up early and walked around Chapinero before catching a cab to the bus station and immediately catching a bus to Neiva, where we would get a collectivo to the Tatacoa desert. After many long and fraught bus rides I was used to the erratic driving of Latin American drivers, but unfortunately on this ride our bus driver actually hit a
motorcyclists. It looked like the motorcyclists had been knocked out, but I don’t know what happened to him as we had to change buses. I hope he is ok.
Although travel days are always exhausting arriving to your destination on the back of a pick up truck is always my favourite way to go. We watched from the back of the truck as the red desert came in to view, before pulling in to our camping grounds where we were were greeted by the owner Nacho. We ate dinner and went to bed as we had an early start of 5.30am the following morning. We rose early and jumped on the back of motorcycles to drive in to the desert to watch the sun rise, we dismounted from the bikes and started our walk through the grey clay desert while Nacho talked about the different plants and ages of the formations. One desert cactus produces a small fruit that looks like a bright pink chilli and tastes like a dragon fruit, it was a delicious desert snack! After the walk we headed back to camp for breakfast and to wait out the long heat of the day next to the pool beer in hand (travelling life is so tough). Later that day as the sun began to wane we took another walk to the close by red rocks and weaved our way through as the sun set. The formations look like a perfectly to scale miniature of the rock formations in the Utah desert. For our final night we sat under the stars and watched an incredible lightning storm happen in the distance before another early rise the following morning. Gina and I decided to get up at dawn again to walk through the red rocks as the sun rose, and after the last delicious breakfast we hopped in a van bound for San Agustin.
San Agustin is a small town indistinct from the rest of Colombia’s small towns, except for the anthropomorphic statues scattered around the countryside. After checking in to my lovely eco hostel overlooking the valley I set out to nurture my inner Indiana Jones. There are two ways to see them, the first is in a park where the statues are preserved in an open museum, but after wandering through I found this a little disappointing having seen so many other archaeological sites through this
trip. However the following day I faced my fears of horses (I apparently have many irrational fears) and undertook a five hour journey through the countryside where I saw similar but more impressive statues as they were carved in to the side of rock overlooking deep gorges. We saw another that was the only example of statues that had been painted with natural colours. The civilisation that these statues belonged to have been lost and hence archaeologists can only guess at the meaning. One of the statues holds a baby in its right arm, and a machete in its left. The guide said it is unclear whether the baby is intended as a sacrifice or perhaps to receive surgery.
I am sure you are all worried about Zikas at the moment, but I am not in any of the places in Colombia that has it, and do not intend on travelling to any countries in the next few months with it. Luckily I have managed to avoid all the truly nasty tropical diseases on this continent. Now just to survive the next few months in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile!
Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay!