Tag Archives: colombia

Minca, or thereabouts…

Finca Carpe DiemThe small town of Minca is a reasonably popular destination in the hills of Colombia South-East of Santa Marta. My plan was to head to Minca, but with last minute bookings I ended up staying on a small coffee Finca called Finca Carpe Diem in the hills south east of the tiny town of Bonda. While the hills of Bonda and the hills of Minca are different places, they offer the same things. Relaxing in the jungles, visits to coffee farms, cacao farms, hike to hilltop viewpoints and hikes to swim in waterfalls and natural jacuzzis.

Finca Carpe Diem is a very relaxing place to be. It is completely surrounded by trees and jungle, set alongside a river in the hills. The hostel has several rooms and bungalows around the property. Central to the hostel are the outdoor swimming pool and the nearby dining room. While many activities are in walking distance of the hostel, many people spend a large amount of time sitting around chatting and/or swimming.

Available for your perusal is a book of the activities available in the area, some are self-guided and others you can pay a guide for. At the suggestion of the book I did a little local exploring of waterways and waterfalls, but also engaged in two paid activities. A visit to the local Cacao Finca and a Waterfall tour.

Finca de Cacao

Approximately 30 minutes walk through the jungle is where Finca de Cacao can be found. It is a very small family run cacao finca. The farm has been in the family for many generations and is currently run by Diana and her family.

Ripe and freshly opened cacao podAs we strolled onto the property, Diana jumped from her hammock to give us a super friendly and enthusiastic greeting to the farm. She welcomes you with a piece of her organic, artisanal handmade chocolate before launching into the tour options – 30 mins for 10,000 pesos or 1.5 hours for 15,000 pesos. With the heat and the fact that Diana did not speak a word of English, we opted for 30 minutes.

Even though Diana is unable to speak English, she is absolutely brilliant at choosing the language relevant to people who only speak a small amount of Spanish, and despite our fears, we understood the entire tour!

The Cacao Finca has 1600 entirely organic trees. They harvest throughout the year but some months are ‘high season’ for harvest. All the cacao beans are fermented for 4-8 days after harvest, followed by drying in the sun for 4-5 days and eventually being roasted. The roasted beans are stripped of their outer shell by hand, before being manually ground through an old fashioned coffee grinder. The cacao paste is kneaded by hand and has sugar and cinnamon mixed through for sweetening. Maria may then add additional ingredients depending on what she is making at the time.

We had the opportunity to try the fresh fruit as well as the cacao beans in all their stages of development, right through to the terribly bitter cacao paste and then the sweetened version of it.

Colombia is a big exporter of chocolate, not so much in terms of quantity, but it is known in the world as some of the best quality chocolate.

Waterfall Tour

Swimming in a remote waterfall in the jungleFor 35,000 pesos each we headed off with a local called Luis, to traipse through the hidden jungle trails to a couple of large and private waterfalls. Luis also didn’t speak any English, but wasn’t as good as Diana as simplifying his language. So apart from a few stilted exchanges we mostly walked in silence.

We first walked past several local fruit farms, before jumping across a river and heading into the unknown. Being amongst the trees in the jungle, no where near other people is a brilliant feeling, and it’s fantastic to listen to the sounds of the jungle nature around you.

Within minutes of starting the walk you are dripping with sweat from every single inch of your body. So arriving at the waterfalls with icy fresh water was quite a nice contrast to the humid sticky air around. We splashed about in each of the waterfalls for a while, enjoying the cooling water and the stunning environment, before heading back. The tour in total takes around 3hours.

Getting There and Away

I headed to Finca Carpe Diem from Santa Marta.

Heading there we got a taxi to Bonda for 50,000 pesos (it turns out we got ripped off and it should have been 10,000). From Bonda we got bumpy motor-taxi ride up a dirt road to the hostel for 10,000 pesos.

Returning to Santa Marta we got the motor-taxi for 10,000 pesos back to Bonda and then a local bus for 1,400 pesos.

I did not pay too much attention to the time of transit, but I would allow at least 1 -1.5 hours.

Minca/Bonda

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Taganga and Tayrona

Within the La Guajira province along the Caribbean coastline are several places worth stopping in for a visit. I used Santa Marta as a jumping off point to access Taganga Beach and Tayrona National Park. While Santa Marta is a charismatic town, I didn’t feel the need to explore it at all.

Taganga

Sunset on Playa TagangaTaganga Beach is approximately 15 minutes by taxi from Santa Marta. A one-way trip in a taxi costs 8000 pesos, or a bus ride is 1400 pesos.

Taganga is a super small, super chilled beach town. Days here consist of lazing on the beach reading a book, swimming and enjoying food and drink on the shaded terrace of one of the many café/restaurants along the beachfront. You can easily spend a few days here relaxing.

I stayed at Mirador de Taganga, which was reasonably priced but fairly basic, with a good view over the beach area. My favourite place to spend time during the day was at Taco’s at the western end of the beach, they make amazing cocktails and happy hour offer 2 for the price of one and extends for about 4 hours. The best restaurant in the area was Pachamama, the atmosphere and food were both amazing; though it is at the pricier end of the scale it is well worth it.

Tayrona National Park

Cost of Park Entrance: 42,000 pesos.

Playa Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National ParkTayrona is certainly a highlight for a huge number of tourists, the beaches are gorgeous and reasonably isolated. The setting is white sand, looking out over the beautiful blue Caribbean Sea with a lush green jungle at your back. Peak season is mid-July to mid-August, and weekends are noticeably busier.

While the park coastline has many different beaches to visit, I chose to go to and stay at Cabo San Juan. It is probably the most popular of the beaches, but has a nice range of basic facilities, safe waters for swimming, gorgeous views as well as sunny and shady spots on the beach for lazing about with a book.

Be prepared for limited facilities, but it is the simplicity of the environment that makes it such a pleasant place to visit.

Note: I would advise that you should pack a daypack with the necessities and leave your main luggage at your hotel in Taganga or Santa Marta when heading into the park.

Food

On Cabo San Juan is one restaurant only. Meals vary in price from 15,000 to 30,000 pesos. Waiting times can be quite long, but the food quality and quantity is reasonable. There are some sellers who wander up and down the beaches with ice cream and snacks such as empanadas and arepas. To buy drinks and other snacks there was a small store next to the restaurant.

Accommodation

Hammock Accommodation at Cabo San JuanCabo San Juan only has one accommodation option, for which check-in opens at approximately 1pm. Queues for the desk will start early and proceed slowly. There are two sleeping options, hammocks and tents. I did not ask about the cost of a tent as with the excessive heat, I heard that sleeping in tents is torture with the lack of airflow. Hammocks are the preferred option, they cost 20,000 pesos per night and you need to get in quick before they run out. The hut of hammocks is fairly tight packed and in some cases, people bump elbows with their neighbours during the night. Sleeping in a hammock is certainly not my preferred method of sleeping, but it was a fantastic experience to have had – I was glad however, that I only booked one night.

Accessing the National Park and Beaches

The area is not as easily accessible as most towns. There are two main ways to access the park, via land or via water.

Land Access

To access the park via land from Taganga you first need to catch a bus to Santa Marta, 20 mins and 1400 pesos. You then get a bus from Santa Marta to the Tayrona National Park entrance, approximately 50-60 minutes and 7000 pesos. At the park entrance you will have a full bag search, you are not permitted to carry drugs or alcohol into the park. From the park entrance to the trailhead is an hour walk, or 10-15 minutes on a bus for 3000 pesos.

From the trailhead it is approximately 2 hours walking to Cabo San Juan, which is the beach I stayed at. There are other beaches along the walk in where you can swim and/or visit. Arrecifes is beautiful, but swimming is not advised due to dangerous rips. La Piscina is gorgeous and much less populated than Cabo San Juan.

Water Access

Boat ride from Taganga to Cabo San JuanYou can get a boat from Taganga beach at around 11am for 40,000 pesos one-way, the ride takes approximately one hour. Departures from Cabo San Juan returning to Taganga are at around 4pm. Despite the calm appearance of Taganga, it is a very sheltered beach, the same cannot be said for the transit to the park. The ride is reasonably extreme in large swell and you are likely to be completely soaked within 20 minutes – be prepared for a hard core ride!

Playa Taganga And Tayrona National Park

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Beach Time in Playa Blanca

Electric blue fish swimming in the reef of Isla ManglarPlaya Blanca, just an hour out of Cartagena is reported as a great place to cool down and relax. Many people head directly there via boat or public transport, or it can be done as a tour.

I opted for the tour version. With a company called Backpackers, I did a two day package. The tour itself cost 150,000 pesos and the accommodation for one night on Playa Blanca cost an additional 50,000 pesos.

Hanging out in the water bungalows at CholonOn the first day the hotel pickup is at 6:15, followed by an hour van ride out to Playa Blanca. From here you can leave your bags at the accommodation if you are staying overnight.

You then jump in a boat and head out to the Isla Rosario archipelago for some water activities. Firstly is an hour of snorkelling around the tiny island just off Isla Grande, called Isla Manglar. The coral reef here is predominantly brown, but it is still living and houses a beautiful variety of fish species.

Beach Bungalow Accommodation on Playa BlancaThe second stop is a place called Cholon, where thatched bungalows have been set up in the water. For 4000 pesos per person you can rent a  bungalow and sit on chairs in the water, watching life swim by while indulging in a drink or two to cool down.

The third stop is Agua Azul, for some swimming and sunbathing.

Lastly you finish up at Playa Blanca for the lunch that is included in the tour cost, and some more beach time. This allows three hours at Playa Blanca if you do the day tour, or 27 hours for those staying overnight.

On the beach you can rent jet skis and stand up paddle boards. Also surprisingly, the restaurants along the beachfront have delicious food on offer. Be aware that in staying at Playa Blanca, aside from bottle water and one shower per day, you have no access to fresh water.

Relaxing with a viewI would definitely recommend the overnight stay so that you have the time to unwind in the shade of a tree, reading a book. Playa Blanca is over the top crowded between 1-4pm daily, with all the boat tour day trippers. The morning and late afternoon are wonderfully relaxed!

Playa Blanca is a great place for some time out!!

Playa Blanca

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Cartagena, postcard perfect!

Cartagena de Indias is a town on the Caribbean Sea. I will be one hundred percent honest, I did next to nothing during my visit to Cartagena, as it is ridiculously excessively hot there. Daily temperatures were around 35 degrees celsius, but with between 70-90% humidity depending on the day, resulting in a ‘feels like’ temperature of around 43 degrees celsius. The minute you move a single muscle, you are already drenched in sweat. Any day time excursions would be advisable for the early morning or very late afternoon, be aware there is little to no shade.

My Cartagena highlights were the old town, Getsemani and a quick visit to the castle on the hill.

Cartagena’s Old Town

Amazing colours in the old spanish colonial buildings int the Old City of CartagenaWhile the town of Cartagena is now  modern sea port, the old walled city oozes the charm and character of it’s Spanish Colonial History. The gorgeous colours of these 400 year old buildings have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to retain their history.

While the old town has churches and probably castles, I didn’t pay much attention to specific monuments, I really just explored and was gobsmacked at just how beautiful and colourful almost every building was. Many have fantastic colour combinations, sometimes with plants and vines falling gracefully from a balcony above. It feels like this town was the most photogenic city I have seen in my life. I absolutely LOVED every second of my explorations of the old town.

As a walled city, it is also worth walking the perimeter on the wall itself, the views are gorgeous.

Getsemani

Three Women, Street Art in GetsemaniGetsemani has been mentioned from time to time as an unsafe area of Cartagena, while I was not keen to wander through solo after sunset, I would have been more than happy to explore solo during the day.

Getsemani is a lively suburb where many bars, cafes and restaurants can be found. The highlight of the suburb for me was all the street art. The walls were dotted with some fantastic pieces, many by artists we had previously come across in Bogota and Medellin. There are graffiti walking tours available for the area, so if you aren’t comfortable going solo, the a tour is an option.

Getsemani is definitely the place to be for nightlife, but go with friends.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo de San Felipe de BarajasEntry to the castle costs 25,000 pesos for an adult; a student/teacher ticket is 10,500 pesos (Right about now is when I am grateful for my International Teacher Identity Card). Tours or audioguides are an additional expense, which I choose not to pay.

Make sure to visit the castle as early as possible in the day because it really is roasting hot. The castle affords some fantastic views over the city, both old and new as well as out to sea. I didn’t learnt he history of the castle but did enjoy wandering around and exploring the underground tunnels.

In trying to get into the castle you will be harrassed by street vendors selling water and hats, if you don’t have these things already, it’s not a bad thing to give in to a street purchase at this point. The hat is a lifesaver!

Eating and Drinking

Honestly with the weather so hot, sometimes what you need to is to seek refuge in an air-conditioned or fan-cooled building. A few restaurants, cafes and bars I would recommend visiting include:

Cuba 1940s: This Cuban style cafe is in the old town on the corner of one of the plazas. They sell absolutely delicious cocktails and the food is to die for! In addition to amazing food and drink, the selling point for the cafe is that it has a pool in the centre, you can sit on the edge, drink your cocktail and dangle your feet in the water.  It is super chilled and well worth spending some time and pesos here.

Coffee SiphonSan Alberto: This cafe in the old town really specialises in preparing good Colombian coffee. The coffee is sourced from Buenavista, Quindio. The cafe offers a variety of coffee preparation methods for you to choose from, such as cold drip, french press, not to mention a whole swag of others I have forgotten. I opted to share a siphon with my friend Jake and Laura. The siphon is a coffee preparation method I have not previously come across, but was very happy with. It was a fascinating and engaging to watch coffee prep process, that resulted in absolutely delicious coffee.

La Mulata: A seafood restaurant in the old town that has ripper reviews on TripAdvisor. It is ideal to reserve a table if possible, but you should still be prepared to wait. Without a reservation we waited at least an hour before ordering, I was getting tired, cranky and hungry but all this disappeared when I saw my meal. Very generous portions of fantastic quality seafood, cooked to perfection. This place was well worth the wait!

Cafe HavanaCháchara: In the suburb of Getsemani is a funky cafe/restaurant called Cháchara. It has funky decor with almost a garden party feel to it. The food was delicious and reasonably priced.

Cafe Havana: This is a famous cafe well known for live music and salsa; the fact that Hilary Clinton visited it certainly boosted it’s profile. It’s big night of the week is Wednesdays, where crowds flock in the doors, paying the 8000 peso entry fee. Things don’t kick off until about 11:30, but get in early if you want to sit down.

Accommodation

My recommendation for accommodation in Cartagena consists of four requirements: In the Old Town, has Air Conditioning; has fans; and has a pool. Being centrally located and having access to a means to cool off is vital to staying in Cartagena.

I stayed at Hotel Escallon and was very happy with the location and facilities.

Cartagena

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Guatape

Guatape is one of those town names that gets name dropped in reference to Medellin. It is a small town approximately two hours from Medellin where there are a few sights to see.

The Guatape region was predominantly farmland, and in the 1970s a large hydroelectric dam was built. While this no doubt had negative ramifications for the local people and their lifestyle, the end result for tourists is a beautiful green landscape with water surrounding bodies of lands. It looks almost like a lagoon dotted with islands.

View of Guatape lake from Piedra El Peñol

Peñol Replica Township

Colourful Church in the Peñol Replica TownshipOn a hill overlooking the dam is a super cute replica township, with a brightly coloured church and some stores and restaurants. It is a great place to stop for an introductory view over the lakes.

Guatape Lake/ Dam

Pablo Escobar's burned out mansionFrom the replica township, we walked five minutes down the hillside to a boat which took us on a round trip cruise through a section of the lake. It was absolutely beautiful.

Some of the fascinating sights to be seen from the boat included some of the famous drug lord, Pablo Escobar’s old houses. Some in good condition and some destroyed and burned out.

The boat ride was quite a fascinating experience, with music being pumped out at top volume at 10am, people enjoying sunshine and a beer and other partying hard with congo lines and salsa dancing. It was thoroughly entertaining!

Piedra el Peñol

Piedra El Peñol, with the 740 stairs stitched into the rockPiedra el Peñol is a fascinating natural rock formation that towers 200 metres over the lake. It juts straight up and out of the earth, with only quite a small footprint/diameter. You can climb the rock for 15,000 pesos, and it takes you 750 steps straight up to the top.

Ignoring the obscene number of people on the top of the rock, the views are spectacular.  It’s well worth climbing the rock, ad after having taken pictures, rewarding your efforts with an ice cold beer.

Guatape Village

Colourful House with a Zocola in Guatape VillageGuatape Village was our last stop of the day, it is also referred to as ‘Town of Zocalos’. A Zocola is a colourful concrete bas-relief scene, throughout Guatape Village many buildings have Zocolas on them, together with incredibly loud, colourful painted door and window frames.

Some people refer to Guatape as the most colourful town in Colombia, while I feel Cartagena gives it a run for it’s money in terms of colour, it really is spectacular to see. I will say the biggest disappointment of the tour, was that we didn’t have time to explore the town for ourselves. As a group we only did a 30 minute walk through and I found that incredibly disappointing.

The colours and designs I did get to see though, were not in the slightest disappointing, they were absolutely gorgeous!

Tour Options

Firstly, I would say that you are best off planning your trip to Guatape in advance. If you have the time, it is financially the best option to go it solo and stay there one night, as the day tours are a bit rushed. Going solo, you can also do it in a full day but I expect it will be challenging for time with public transport.

For time and convenience there are a number of tours available. If you try to book the night before, you are unlikely to find availability for the tour you want, which is what happened to me.

The tour I wish I had the money for…

The tour that sounds pretty awesome is the full day Pablo Escobar tour. It hits the highlights of Guatape, such as the dam, the rock and the colourful town. It also visits some of Pablo Escobar’s houses, and has a bilingual guide. It does not include any food, and costs a crazy amount of money (USD$295).

The tour I realistically wish I had done…

A friend recommended visiting Guatape with Do it in a Van. Their itinerary sounds good and it is designed for a younger crowd. my friends experience was that the tour didn’t feel too rushed and was loads of fun. Transport is in funky old vans. It is a full day tour and includes breakfast and lunch. They don’t operate every day, and as I found out, they book out in advance. The cost was reasonable, but I don’t recall exactly what it was, perhaps around 70,000 Pesos.

The tour I actually did…

I did the full day tour with some random company whose flyer was in my hostel. The cost was 90,000 pesos and included breakfast, lunch, transport and visits to the places I wanted to see, unfortunately the guide could not speak a word of English.

While the tour group wasn’t by any means young, fun or communicative, the tour achieved what we wanted it to and that was to get us to each of the places we wanted to see.

I’m personally glad I did a tour because I felt the logistics and timing of going it solo for a day trip were going to be a wee bit challenging a stressful.

Guatape

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Medellin

Medellin was a city I instantly warmed to, and not just because it was literally warmer than any place I had been to recently. The city vibe was friendly and relaxed. I felt very welcome as a tourist and I was really excited to explore a city that had once been the most dangerous in the world.

We took on board the advice online and from other travellers about staying in the suburb El Poblado, and from there we ventured out to other areas of the city and surrounds.

Before launching into my discussion of Medellin, a quick safety lesson…

The Papaya Rule

Taught to us by our walking tour guide is the Papaya Rule, just a helpful tip for increasing your safety and reducing your risk of being pick pocketed or having things stolen.

  1. Don’t offer the Papaya
  2. If the Papaya is on offer, it should be taken

What that equates to is, don’t have your stuff out there for people to see and take. If you have a nice camera, don’t hold it loosely in your hand, rather use the wrist strap or neck strap and have it attached to your body.  Make sure that your bag is zipped up tightly, and in crowded areas wear it on your front rather than your back.

Remain mindful of how easily accessible your stuff is, and pay attention to it.

El Poblado

Street Art in El PobladoEl Poblado is a really trendy neighbourhood where all the hostels, cafes, restaurants are bars are. It has a very lively atmosphere, particularly after sunset when people spill out of the bars and onto the streets.

There were so many places to eat and drink, I barely even scratched the surface though my one biggest recommendation is Al Alma for breakfast, it was AMAZING!! Though, be prepared to wait for your food and drinks as service on the whole in Colombia is not quick.

While you always need to keep your wits about you, the area really is quite safe to explore. I would have been quite comfortable to walk around by myself, even after dark.

Real City Walking Tour

Botero Sculpture and Belgian designed ChurchThere are loads of free (and paid) walking tours available in Medellin, the one we chose to do was highly recommended by a friend we met in Salento, it was the Real City Walking tour. If you are keen to do it, you need to reserve a place online as the tour is incredibly popular and can book out a few days in advance.

We met our guide Hernan, a Paisan, who is very knowledgeable and passionate about his city.

Medellin is a city in the province of Paisaland. People from the region are referred to as Paisa’s and they identify themselves as being different from other Colombians through their display of two characteristics. They feel they are different to other Colombians and they view themselves as being better than other Colombians. As a result they are often hated by Colombians from other regions. While Hernan felt that it was not a correct view, it is one that has been ingrained in all Paisans over a long period of time. Paisaland is a a ‘gold mine’ of coffee, gold ore, mining and other things that contributed to the regions development as an industrial city. They developed the first railroad in the country, which allowed industry and trade to flourish. As a result Paisaland became more wealthy than other regions of the country, it had well developed infrastructure and became quite modern. In their travels and trade efforts Paisans saw other Colombians continuing to work very hard using traditional methods of farming and mining, and the result was that Paisan’s felt superior them.

Botero Bird Sculpture destroyed by a bomb attack, replica sculpture in the background - both a reminder of the history of MedellinA member of the walking tour asked a really good question at this point, as to whether Medellin’s wealth was a result of drug money, as Medellin was for a long time the drug capital of Colombia, and home to ‘famous’ drug lord Pablo Escobar. The answer was no, the city was built up as an industrial city in the past. The industrial history of the city and region allowed the city’s infrastructure to be built up prior to the drug situation developing. It was due to Pablo Escobar in the 1980’s that drugs became a big trade in the region. The jungle provided access to many lands that were not easily easily accessible or monitored. So the quantity of land and accessibility to water for shipping was the reason for Colombia’s ‘success’ in the drug industry. Pablo Escobar was shot in 1993 in Medellin, while it was not discussed, my assumption is that the safety in Colombia started to improve after his death.

Colombia’s reputation as a dangerous place was well-deserved but since the the change of government in 2002, initiatives have been put in place to increase safety. Also part of the initiative was the creation of numerous public libraries which double as community centres; they are there to provide education and support to the communities, particularly to enlighten the children that there are other opportunities in life than violence. After the initiatives were put into place, within just one year the safety increased dramatically and kidnappings decreased by 90%. While there were also many negatives associated with this initiative as it is linked to the USA Plan Colombia, which I touched on in my post about Bogota, the positive outcomes are what contribute to us being able to visit Colombia today.

Throughout the tour we saw some bits and pieces around downtown Medellin, like libraries, sculptures, the Botero sculpture park, the worlds largest church made of baked bricks (which is how it is publicised though technically inaccurate) and other sights around town. The tour was more about the stories and history of Colombia and was throughly fascinating, especially when explained from the perspective of someone who lived through the bad years and into the good. Hernan was grateful that we took the time and effort to visit his country, as unfortunately it has had a bad rap in the past, but it is important to share with the world that Colombia is a beautiful and amazing place to visit and that tourists are most definitely welcome (This was reinforced by the interruptions of various locals throughout our tour to welcome us to Colombia and thank us for visiting).

Comuna 13

San Javier Cable CarAfter reading up a bit on Street Art and things to see in Medellin, Comuna 13 kept popping up as an area to visit. Comuna 13 is the suburb where, just ten to fifteen years ago, people were being regularly shot in the streets in broad daylight. When the Government cracked down on crime and introduced an initiative to help educate the people and increase security, the area improved dramatically. I often like to do walking tours, but then I also like to explore by myself. With my desire to Comuna 13, I did quite a bit of reading and talking to others before determining whether the solo venture would be safe. I read a great blog post on Optimism Rampage that outlined transport to the area and what they experienced when they visited in January 2016, it gave me the information I needed to set off on my own.

I started by heading to San Javier Metro Station, where the first I did was catch the Metrocable (Cable Car) up and over the hills, so that I could see the local neighbourhoods as well as a good view over the city. Riding the cable car is recommended, but getting off at any point is not. These neighbourhoods are not safe for tourists to explore. So jump on the cable car, ride a full loop and enjoy the views. A round trip if you don’t get off costs 2,125 pesos.

Comuna 13 EscalatorsBack at the Metro Station, grab one of the buses to Escaleras Mechanicas for 1000 pesos. The area around the escalators is the place you want to visit. The neighbourhood is on a very steep hill and some years ago, to assist people in getting to and from their houses, a series of outdoor escalators were built. I feel that they are a source of pride within the neighbourhood and are very well maintained.

As this started to attract the tourists, the people in the neighbourhood painted their houses bright colours and filled the blank walls with beautiful, colourful street art. The people in the area are super friendly, and all greet you with a smile. The kids are in for high fives and photos. Don’t stray too far from the escalators, but definitely go and see the area, take in the colours, the art and the view. It was the highlight of Medellin city for me!

Comuna 13 Street Art

Day Trip to Guatape

Guatape is one of those places that people keep mentioning. It’s a few hours out of Medellin and worth a visit. Coming soon will be a blog post about my Guatape visit.

Accommodation

We spent our four nights in dorm rooms at Caminante Hostel. It is a new hostel in the El Poblado suburb of Medellin, which is the recommended suburb to stay in as a tourist. Caminante is a very new hostel and hasn’t yet received many reviews online, we took a chance and it paid off.

The hostel was quite modern, clean and in a great location. The staff were really helpful and friendly, and their English was pretty good. I really appreciated them making bookings for tours and taxis on my behalf as I was not able to communicate on the phone myself.

A great place to stay for sure!!

Getting There and Away

We arrived in Medellin after a 6 hour bus trip from Salento for 37,000 pesos.

Departing Medellin for Cartagena we paid 65,000 pesos for a ride to the airport and roughly USD$75 for a budget flight with VivaColombia.

Medellin

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Sipping latte’s in Salento

Salento is a day’s bus travel west of Bogota. It is in the coffee triangle and unsurprisingly known for coffee, but also, perhaps surprisingly for the crazy tall Palm trees.

Salento Town

Colourful windows and doorways in Salento TownThe town is Salento is quite small, with its main plaza perched on a hilltop.

Everywhere you look the city oozes character and charm. The buildings are painted in bright and beautiful colour combinations. The town is busy, but relaxed with a positive vibe.

The aroma of coffee wafts into the streets from the numerous cafes, as the air is filled with chatter and laughter.

Tejo

Tejo mud pit with ring of gunpowder sachetsOne of the things to do in Salento is play the local game of Tejo. We played at a bar called Los Amigos, where the cost of playing is free (or next to nothing) while you are drinking.

The game is played in aisles. At the end of the aisle is a mud pit containing a metal ring. Five small sachets of gun powder are placed on the ring. Standing at least two to three metres from the mud pit, you throw a metal weight at the pit, with the aim of exploding the gun powder. If your weight lands in the center of the ring and explodes all five sachets, you earn 9 points; if your weight lands in the centre of the ring it is 6 points; and an explosion is 3 points. Any of these things will finish the round. If none of these things occur, one point goes to the player whose weight is closest to the ring. The first person/team to achieve 21 points wins. It’s loads of fun!!!

Don Eduardo’s Coffee Tour

Cost: 30,000 pesos. 

Tim talking on the phone, looking over the coffee plantationTim Edwards, the owner of our accommodation, The Plantation House owns a small coffee plantation and offers plantation tours. (Guests received a reduced tour cost, we stayed two nights and paid half the cost)

Tim does a brilliant job of explaining the different types of coffee in the world. The Robusta which originated in West Africa, has less flavour but more caffeine; and the Arabica having originated in Ethiopia, has more flavour and less caffeine.

Arabica coffee is grown between the tropics (Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn) and at altitude between 1200-1600m, preferably in some slightly acidic soil.

While Brazil is the biggest coffee producer in the world, producing a third of worlds coffee, Colombia certainly is a player in the industry as the fourth largest producer in the world, with over 300,000 coffee farms spread around the country.

Colombia only produces Arabica coffee, and as a result is known for quality and flavour.

There are over 100 types of Arabica. Arabica coffee is split into two broad categories: traditional and modern (moderns are hybrids of Arabica & Robusta). Most coffees grown in Columbia are modern.

Coffee in various forms - coffee cherry through to fresh ground and brewed hot coffeeAfter explaining the coffee varietals Tim went on to explain the process of producing coffee, from the planting the bean in sandy soil to achieve straight strong roots, through the replanting processes, harvesting, drying, shelling, through to roasting and grinding. We are able to witness the last few stages, shelling, roasting and grinding, to enjoy a super fresh cup of coffee on the plantation where it was grown.

It was a brilliant tour, one that I strongly recommend doing.

Valle de Cocora

Costs: Jeep ride 2,600 pesos each way
5,000 pesos entry to the hummingbird house, includes a hot drink (optional)
12,000 pack lunch from Brunch on the Main Street (optional)

Valle de Cocora is a short 30minute jeep ride from Salento, and the number one thing to visit in the area. The jeeps typically leave the main plaza of Salento by 7:30, so you need to get there early. Valle de Cocora is a combination of rolling hills with crazy tall Palm trees towering over the lands, and mountainous rainforest trails.

The area is fantastic for hiking a loop through the various mountains, hills and vegetation.

Start the loop by taking the branch to the right. It follows the river up into lush rainforest. The walk is a little challenging, but absolutely gorgeous.

Hummingbird feeding from a flower while in flightAfter about 5km you reach the entry point for Acaime, the hummingbird house. While there is an entry cost, I would highly recommend the visit. The hummingbirds are beautiful and quite happily flit between the bird feeders and flowers. 

After visiting the hummingbirds, there is an additional side trek to a waterfall if that tickles your fancy. As we were hiking in the rain, and the visit would have added 5km to our walk we decided against it.

When you return to the entry point of the hummingbirds, despite what the sign says, take the branch to the right and continue up the hill. Slowly the vegetation thins out and you pop out on a hill top. This is a great spot to sit and eat your packed lunch or snacks.

The walk down the hill is an easy walk down a road which leads you through all the giant Wax Palms (Palma de Cera), which I believe may be some of the worlds tallest palm trees. I found them to be absolutely beautiful and was the reason I wanted to visit Salento.

Note: In theory there is food and toilets available at the point where the jeeps drop you off, but they are not open at 8am. So come prepared as that is the only place to buy food. There are toilets at the hummingbird house for 1000 pesos per use.

Valle de Cocora, silhouette of Palm Trees on the hill side

Food and Drink Recommendations

Coffee – definitely visit Cafe Jesus Martin. The coffee is amazing!

Breakfast – Brunch on the Main Street leading to the plaza. Portion sizes are enormous, they have a great selection of menu items at a reasonable price and have free coffee refills

Lunch – La Casona on the main square has some traditional dishes for a good price. I enjoyed a dish called Patacon con todo (Patacon with everything). Patacon is a giant crispy piece of fried plantain. On top was mince meat, cheese and salsa. It was delicious, but you need to be prepared for getting your fingers dirty, as this is a meal eaten with your hands.

Dinner – Cafe Bernabe has a fantastic menu, also at a reasonable cost. Their cuisine is fresh, healthy and delicious. I ate an eggplant dish reminiscent of a vegetarian lasagna and it was amazing!

Accommodation

With four of us we rented a four bed dorm room with shared bathroom for 25,000pesos per night at The Plantation House

I really liked the location of the property, on the outskirts of town where it was nice and quiet, surrounded by trees.

Breakfast was not included, but there was free coffee and wifi. With Columbia experiencing an extreme drought, the water to the property was only turned on for approximately eight hours a day, split over three time periods.

Getting There and Away

To get to Salento we took the 10pm night bus to Armenia from Bogota. It cost 54,000 pesos and took approximately eight hours, arriving ahead of schedule at 5am.

On arrival in Armenia we took the half hourly shuttle to Salento. It cost around 4000 pesos and took about an hour.

Departing Salento, we caught a bus to Medellin for 37,000 pesos, taking approximately 6 hours.

Salento

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Zipping out to Zipaquira

When in Baños I enjoyed chatting to a fellow Netherlander, when asking for his highlights from his Colombian visit he mentioned the salt cathedral in Zipaquira, a short day trip out of Bogota. On seeing his photos I promptly added it to my To-See list.

La Catedral de Sal

Cost: 50,000 pesos for entry and tour

Main Altar of Salt CathedralZipaquira is home to a large salt mine. As it was being used so heavily and miners lived underground for long periods of time, a cathedral was built inside the mine.

Many years on the Cathedral has been developed as a tourist attraction though it stills houses a functioning Cathedral offering weekly mass, that is also available for weddings.

The tour leads you into the mine from a hillside, you are led through the stations of the cross, through the naves and to the main altar. Each part of the cathedral has a monument, a cross, carving or sculpture. Everything has been created with great attention to detail and in fine carving work. They are all highlighted with coloured lighting, for stunning visual effect.

Wandering through a cathedral, up to 180 metres under the ground is an eerie but awe inspiring experience. Under the ground is both calm and beautiful. The guide I had was fantastic – both informative and with a great sense of humour and I absolutely loved my visit,

Getting There

To catch local buses you need to buy a transit card and top it up with money, ask the seller about the cost of a return ride to Zipaquira and entry into the stations and get that amount on the card. We used a combination of taxis and buses, so I lost count of costs, but I think it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 pesos round trip by bus.

To get to Zipaquira, catch a bus to Portal Norte. From Portal Norte get the bus to Zipaquira.
Returning, jump on a bus on the main street of Zipaquira that is headed to Bogota. Change buses at Portal Norte and jump on the J72 to Las Aguas.

Allow two hours travel time in each direction.

Zipaquira Salt Cathedral

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Buzzing around Bogota

After a late night arrival and only a few hours sleep, my friends Steve, Jake, Laura and I hit the streets of Bogota for our one day of exploring the city.

Conveniently we were exploring on a Sunday which meant that entry to all museums was free and most central streets were closed to cars, which filled the city with people and street stalls. We visited Museo del Botero, Casa de Moneda and Museo del Oro. I’m not much a museum person, so I have simply provided a short summary of each of the museums. Aside from exploring the city on foot we also did the Graffiti walking tour and rode the cable car to the top of Montserrate for an awesome view of the city.

Museo del Botero

Fatty Mona Lisa at Museo del BoteroMuseo del Botero is an art gallery primarily displaying the artwork of Fernando Botero. His style is to represent women, men, animals as ‘voluminous’ or in my words, fat. In addition to the quirky artwork, then architecture of the building is beautiful. It is very Spanish looking, whitewashed, multiple archways leading to an internal courtyard with a garden and fountain.

Casa de Moneda

Attached to the Museo del Botero is the Casa de Moneda, a museum about the history of the currency in Columbia. It then also extends into another art gallery with a wide variety of works in various styles.

Museo del Oro

Further into the centre of town is the museum of gold, which informs the visitor of the history of gold mining in Ecuador. Showcased as also many traditional gold artifacts.

Plaza Bolivar

Plaza BolivarThe main central square of the city is Plaza Bolivar. It is flanked on all sides by beautiful historic buildings. The plaza is a hub of activity, with street sellers of food and toys. Kids whizzing around on roller blades and bikes.

One of the main streets runs through the plaza, though I have forgotten the name. It is worth wandering down the main streets to enjoy the atmosphere, the local street performance art and random games, such as guinea pig racing. The streets were also full of various stalls selling almost anything you might want to look for.

Bogota Graffiti Tour

Indigenous Lady Street ArtThe Bogota Graffiti Tour is a free walking tour (tips based) around the Candelaria area of the city and then continuing into downtown, where the artwork becomes more politically based.

Our tour guide Jay was absolutely brilliant at explaining the various art styles, as well as discussing the various artists their styles, history and motivation.

We were able to see numerous pieces by the same artist, and given visual indictors to look for in identifying the work of each of these artists. For example, the work of an artist referred to as Rodez can be identified by the use of multiple eyes and large array of colours. Jay’s intricate knowledge of the styles of each of the individual artists and the way he taught us to identify the artists made the tour so much more fascinating and personable.

Homeless Person - Political Street ArtThough I am not by any means a politically minded person, some of the more controversial and fascinating stories Jay had to share were regarding Plan Columbia and a concept referred to as False Positives. To assist Columbia combat the drugs issue, the USA implemented an initiative called Plan Columbia in the late 90s. While there is debate as to whether the initiative was successful or not. There were some definite negative results. Possibly the most negative result of the initiative, were the false positives. There was some form of reward for killing guerillas (I’m no expert on the matter, so I am not going to say who was providing the reward or what type of reward it was, though I suspect financial). In order to gain a greater reward and appear to have greater success in the war on drugs, many civilians were kidnapped, dressed in guerilla clothing and murdered. These deaths were referred to as False Positives and were absolutely horrendous. While the US may have had good intentions, this was a case where the assistance may have been misguided and done more harm than good.

So much of the art was absolutely spectacular and I would highly recommend the tour!

Montserrate

To round off our visit to Bogota, we watched a sunset from the peak of Montserrate. Access to the mountain top is via cable car and/or funicular. I was given the recommendation to catch the funicular up and ride the cable car down, but the funicular was not running that evening. No matter which transport method you use the cost of a return ticket during the day is 18,000 pesos, or 19,000 pesos after 5:30pm.

The view of Bogota from Monsterrate was absolutely spectacular. It gave a good overview of just how far the city sprawls. As the sun dropped in the sky bathing the city in golden light, the street lights came up and the busy street network became visible.

The sunset from the mountain was the best way to end our visit!

Sunset over Bogota

Accomodation

We stayed in Casa Bellavista Hostel for a reasonable cost per night with a delicious breakfast included; 28,000 pesos per night. The location was in La Candelaria, it was close to many bars and food options. It was easy to walk to all of the things we wanted to see, and there was loads of street art in the area.

 

Bogota

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Road Tripping from Quito to Bogota

I left cold Salasaka behind me and headed for the warmth of Columbia, a multi-day road trip with a few stops along the way. I started in Salasaka, Ecuador and finished in Bogota, Columbia, stopping in Ipiales, Popayan and Cali along the way.

Ipiales

Las Lajas SanctuarioIpiales is mostly a border town with not a whole lot to offer, except surprisingly an incredibly stunning sanctuary/church which straddles a gorge over the Guáitara River with high arches.

Las Lajas Sanctuario is church built based on the story of a woman and her deaf daughter who sought shelter in a storm, and a miracle occurred when the daughter saw an apparition and regained her hearing and voice. The first shrine was built in 1756, and since has been redeveloped and the church in its current form was built between 1916 and 1949.

I thought the stop in Ipiales was well worth it to see this stunning piece of archtecture nestled into the surrounding landscape. Visits are free, but the taxi ride costs approximately $3 each way.

Popayan

Popayan is listed in the Lonely Planet guide as a hidden gem that most tourists miss, so I decided not to miss it. With a late night arrival and a hotel booked in the bad part of town, my first response was to get out as soon as possible.

Cute church in PopayanHowever, after a night of rest I was determined to see what exactly Lonely Planet was on about. So off I went in a taxi to the historic part of town, and wasn’t disappointed.

The historic centre of Popayan is all whitewashed colonial style architecture reminiscent of the Spanish occupation. The avenues are wide, cobble stones and super cute to explore. If you happen to be passing through this town it a worth a stop to explore, just be sure to get a hotel/hostel in the historic part of town.

Cali

Cali Street ArtCali is a city known for Salsa, while I didn’t engage in any dancing I did however find the suburbs of San Antonio to be full of character and charm, not to mention absolutely fantastic street art.

Wandering after dark by yourself probably isn’t a brilliant idea, but exploring the streets by day is an absolutely brilliant idea. Wander, get lost, look at the walls around you and of course make stops in the gorgeous cafe’s for delicious coffee and tasty treats.

I stayed at Kingbird Hostel in San Antonio, which I would highly recommend for location, atmosphere and awesome staff.

Ecuador-Columbia Border Crossing

The border town on the Ecuadorian side is called Tulcan, and the border town on the Columbian side is called Ipiales. Neither town is exactly on the border, so you can catch buses to these towns and then a taxi to/from the actual border. Once you clear migration on one side, you walk across the bridge to the migration on the other side. It was probably the easiest border crossing I have ever completed.

Transport Summary

Bus: Salasaka to Quito (via Ambato) $4 4hrs
Bus: Quito to Tulcan $7 6.5hrs
Taxi: Ecuador border $3.50 10mins
Walk: across Ecuador-Columbia border $0 20mins incl. immigration
Taxi: Ipiales $8 (was ripped off majorly) 10mins
Bus: Ipiales to Popayan $11 8.5hrs
Bus: Popayan to Cali $5 3hrs
Flight: Cali to Bogota
* I decided I was prepared to spend more money to save myself yet another 10hr bus ride!
$ 45 1 hr
Total: $83.50 24hrs approx

Ipiales, Popayan And Cali

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