Mountains, beaches, jungle, cloud forest, quaint towns and cosmopolitan cities.
15.02.2012 - 13.03.2012
After a smooth flight enjoying watching the Amazon river snake its way through the forest below us, we start our time in Colombia in Bogota, couchsurfing with Elena, a Bogatano who has a great sense of fun and a fantastic circle of friends, who quickly become our friends too.
We spend a couple of days checking out Bogota – both the touristy old city, up on the hill at Monserrate (where we got hailed on), and the areas where more of the locals live. We sample Colombia’s culinary delights at a food market that had set up outside the cathedral - stewed meat with yukka, plantain and salted potatoes, lulo, a fermented rice drink (which was a massive ‘yuk’ for me while M thought it rather tasty...), meringue, passionfruit curd, Colombian coffee and rice pudding with red fruits – yum yum!
We are introduced to Tejo, Colombia’s national sport where you throw a lead weight at a box of clay containing small packets of gunpowder. The objective being to hit the gunpowder and make it go ‘bang!’. The danger element being heightened by payment for lane rental being made in the purchase of beer. M is in his element here and just gets better as the beer flows and the group starts chanting ‘Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, Matthew’ every time M takes up his tejo ready for a throw. M is the star of the show and is even complimented on his technique by one of the old boys playing in the next lane!
And we get to see the party side of Bogata with a night out with Elena, Dario and Dimitrio at the Teatron. The aguadiente flowed and OMG can these boys and girls dance - salsa, techno, reggeton, no matter what, they can shake to it, and we had a good go at keeping up!
Next up was Villa de Leyva, a beautiful colonial town with a peaceful countryside hostel. Nearby sites included a massive fossil of an old swimming dinosaur...and ‘Colombia’s Stonehenge’ nearby.
We discovered these attractions by bicycle and also found a bodega selling feijoa wine – yum! And then I found the feijoas themselves – more yumminess!! We were joined by Amanda (an American couchsurfing lady we had met while playing tejo) on a beautiful morning walk up to a nearby waterfall and onto the viewpoint over the town.
San Gil gave me the chance to do a tandem paraglide. Soaring and swooping like a bird over the vast Chicamocha Canyon was magical! (M had done a fair bit of solo paragliding before, so just came along to check out the canyon and take a few photos). Unfortunately the drive up to the canyon and back wasn’t so pleasant with all the twists and turns, and so for the evening's night bus journey over the same roads we grabbed some heavy duty motion sickness tablets that also knocked us out for most of the 12 hour journey!
Up to Santa Marta and Taganga we had the chance to enjoy being beach bums by day and dancing away the nights to a live 11 piece carnival band from Belgium that was in the area after playing at the Barraquicha festival. We loved the vibe in Taganga. OK, it is touristy and the beach isn’t the best ever, but everyone was very chilled, the food was great (Baba Ganoush did the best fillet mignon with red wine jus) and rum and coke in the evening on the beachfront went down very well.
Tayrona National Park was a little piece of paradise. Big boulders on the golden sand of windswept Caribbean beaches, jungle filled with butterflies and monkeys, sleeping to the sound of the surf crashing onto the beach and the wind whipping through the palms...
We also ate some of the best seafood here – prawns in tamarind, which was a new taste sensation for M, and seabass in a crust of plantain, yum! We also had a very sweaty hike through the jungle and clambering over and around massive boulders to Peubolito, a ruined city of the Tayronan people which was really quite impressive, even more so as we were the only people there! We then continued our hike another couple of hours onto the road, seeing some massive spiders and a snake on the way. This worried us a little as night fell and our last 30mins of hiking was done in the dark with head torches and the moon to keep us from treading on any of the nastier creatures. The jungle takes on quite a different mood as darkness falls, so many new sounds! But we were fine and were back to Taganga just before our local roast chicken restaurant closed for the night for a massive meal.
Onto Cartagena where our first impressions of a chaotic, grubby and sprawling town gave way to the charms of the old, walled city. Beautiful colonial buildings are sealed within the walls to keep the sea spray of the wild Caribbean sea out. Wandering around the city walls is a delight with the cooling breeze moderating the otherwise scorching heat of this city. I check out the modern art museum and the much better Oro and Zanu museum which tells not only about the history of gold in Colombia, but about the Zanu people and how they changed a large area of Colombia through digging well thought out irrigation channels to keep their crops and houses above water in times of flood and prevent drought devastating their crops too. My cravings for spice were tempered by a tiny indian restaurant and we had a delightful night in Cafe Havana sipping mojitos while a live band played some of my favourite cuban tunes. We explored one of the many local Forts....with its tunnels and turrets, got a little lost and found ourselves wandering through the back streets of Getesmani where the locals had pulled their chairs out onto the street to relax, chat to their neighbours and enjoy the evening breeze.
Back up on the city walls Cafe del Mar was pumping out techno beats and as prices were also imitating Ibiza we hung out on the fringes of this open air bar with ice cream and our own drinks to dance and enjoy all that this bar had to offer, but on the budget of two increasingly skint travellers.
An overnight bus takes us to Medillin which is back up in the mountains and has a beautiful spring-time climate - M is very happy with that! We use the cable car that is part of the public transport to see the city from the air, zipping up and down the hills and over houses (some are shacks clinging onto the hillsides).
And we discover the yummy fruit salad in papaya/watermelon juice sold on roadside stalls which is the perfect healthy snack to combat the many '4 carbs' meals we've found ourselves eating. Also a visit to the botanical gardens is a highlight with a Butterfly House showing us even more stunning species of these beautiful creatures.
Our bus to Manizales resembles a rollercoaster, but our manic driver somehow gets us there without incident. Phew. We stay at the mountain house hostel (highly recommended!), head out on the town with some fellow travellers, sample the local rum (way too easy to drink!) and chat to a few locals.
Next on our travels is staying in the mountains in Solento, a beautiful small town surrounded by coffee plantations, farms and with the Cocora Valley just down the road. Our first night is out on a farm where we spot fireflies in the fields, chat to our hostess Luz Angela in spanish and are woken early by the builders...luckily an early start is needed to get us up into town ready for our coffee plantation tour. Finca Don Eduardo is a small, organic coffee plantation where the weeding was all done by hand and the land was planted in layers with tall bamboo and bananas, then citrus and coffee, and pineapple lower down. We see the full coffee process, from the ripe fruit through to dried and roasted bean, and then we get to sample the freshly produced and ground coffee - Wow!! Even M enjoyed it! Buzzing, we head out to the Cocora Valley with Laura and Darra. Wet, but so beautiful!
On our way back to Bogota, what we thought would be an inevitable robbery at some point on the trip, nearly happened. I took our two day bags onto the bus with me while M took the big backpacks to place in the hold. I take two seats near the front of the bus and am told they are occupied. The guy who has told me this grabs M's bag and heads towards the back of the bus. He shows me to two new seats and places M's bag above my head and reaches for mine. I decline and keep it with me, but in the barrage of spanish forget that M's bag is above my head rather than next to me. M gets on board and clocks that his bag is above my head but is more preoccupied with asserting his authority over the guy he thinks is having a go at chatting me up. Next thing we know, only seconds later, is M's bag appears at the front of the bus, held up by a security guard...It seems that the bag was wrapped in a red coat and escorted off the bus right under our noses, we assume by an accomplice. Luckily a security guard thought it unlikely that a Colombian would have a fancy green and grey Rohan day bag on his back and stopped him as he left the station! We're promptly had to get off the bus, grab our bags out of the hold and head to the police station where we were asked to ID the thief...but it's not the guy we're expecting and my 'police spanish' isn't up to much. They want us to say this guy took our bag, but we can't say it was him - we've never seen him before. And weirdly he's right there eyeballing us across the room. The police ask us to discuss the matter with him...what we would discuss and how I don't know... A couple of hours later and with the promised CCTV still not being available we've decided to call it a day. Using google translate 'Lord Matthew' has signed a statement saying he can't proceed any further...
By 10pm we are finally in Bogota. Elena takes our mind off the mornings events and takes us out to a friends birthday drinks. Sunday sees a relaxed brunch, lots of chatting, elevenses (well afternoon tea actually...) and helping Elena work out that she may just be able to travel to India and Egypt - it is easy to forget just how lucky we are to have citizenship of westernised countries and the opportunities that affords us. We have an amazing last supper with Elena, Dario, Domitrio and Carlos - which they sneakily pay for while M uses the bathroom taking the money with him...So we take them out for 80's style cocktails ;-) The goodbyes are sad - we never expected such generosity, hospitality and warmth and really hope to see our Bogatano friends again! Muchas gracias amigos!!