I think we are both quite surprised by the size and modernity of Cartegena when we arrive. We have just spent 5-6 days sailing from Panama to Colombia and because we have arrived late we decide to spend our last night on the boat and go ashore to the old town of Getsemani the next morning. This is the heart of backpacker land, mingled with locals it is a vibrant sea of activity whereas the beautiful fairytale walled old city could have been pulled straight from Disneyland.
We walk the 6 miles of walls but it is too hot in the day and have to return the next evening when the breezes are up. On the first evening we reunite with our shipmates and share beers and pizzas at the local cultural centre which has a flower laden beer garden and we are treated to traditional dancing. Nowadays I usually avoid a lot of traditional dancing as they can be a little long and repetitive especially in Asia but here in Columbia with their African roots and amazing costumes it I was quite a feast for the senses.
About 40 km from Cartegena is a 15 m mud volcano where you can enjoy a massage and a good soak. It is a funny feeling as there is zero gravity and we lol around for an hour or so before being unceremoniously washed down by the local ladies in the lake. Mud in every crevice and they were determined to get it out. Ears, boobs, you name it they cleaned it haha.
We quickly adapt to the new continent of South America mainly as it is not that much different to Panama and the people are incredibly friendly. We catch our first local bus to Santa Marta and are transferred to an alternative bus just as the lady behind us threw up all over the floor. Paul was convinced the driver was falling asleep and kept jumping up to save the day, I think he just had a nervous tic. We eventually make it to Santa Marta and realise it is Columbia national day. The local collectives won't take us and keep pointing to our bags so we get a cab to Taganga. Driven by Michael Schumacher around the bends on the wrong side of the road we are thankful to have survived our first full day of travel in Columbia. We are in Taganga, a small fishing village growing faster than it can handle. Crime and drugs are rife, if you look for it!
We find a great hostel called Moramar, friendly family run and good price, first five minutes there I'm washing my face in the sink only to watch a scorpion crawl out from the drain hole. This is our home for a while, scorpions and all!. A short walk to the beach front for a beer and wonder how much it has changed in the four years since Sophie was here. The beach front is teaming with happy, drunk Columbians celebrating their National day not unlike Australia Day really. National flags flying high, eskies full of beer and Latino music blaring from large speakers. We do witness one lady drop a bundle of cash and a young girl casually put her foot on it then retrieve it later. Paul wanted to confront the girl but she was with family and a lot of alcohol was being consumed. We decided to stay out of it for safeties sake.
Sunday was more celebrating, cervezas and salsa, with a few swims in between. We decide to do the 5 day trek to Cuidad Perdida leaving Tuesday.
This trek takes us up into Sierra Nevada mountains which overlook the Columbian Carribean coastline. After our initial orientation meeting with our tour group we head off into the jungle hills. We share the track with pack horses carrying our food for the next 5 days. The trek takes us through dense jungle paths, steep cliff side rocky sections and across crystal clear river crossings. We sweat so much that we are literally water logged for the entire 5 days. Swimming in the water holes along the river course provides us with a freshness we constantly relish. Our accommodation along the way is usually a hammock or a mattress with mosquito net. At the end of each days walking we are fed copious amounts of carbohydrate food. One dinner comprised a plate of rice, pasta and potato! Talk about energy food.... Plus our guide constantly handed out chocolate bars along the way just to give us that extra kick!
The culmination of the first 3 days of trekking rewarded us with our first glimpse of the ancient "lost city" . Approx. 700 years ago a civilisation of indigenous Tayronna people lived here. Their homes perched on the narrow mountain ridge high above the Caribbean. Today, the city is made up of many circular stone foundations where once wooden and thatched roof houses once proudly stood, with thick jungle all around. The indigenous Kogi people are still present, often living in remote hillside villages, away from modern civilisation. Some, however, have adapted to the tourist invasion and allowed us to be part of their daily lives. They are extremely shy, inquisitive and humble. They grow their black hair long, representing the flow of the waterfalls which cascade around them. White clothing, almost sacklike, show the stains of mud which is ever present after rain. Boys carry traditional handwoven shoulder bags while girls wear long beaded necklaces. It is usually the only way to separate gender as they all look so much alike. The men carry a small pottery vessel and stick to grind their coca leaf which they constantly chew. The coca plant is grown in these hills, much of which ends up in the hands of the Columbian drug barons and processed for the international cocaine trade. It is sad to think that much of Columbia has been built on the back of illegal drugs.
To finish any trek is always gratifying as we look forward to a comfortable room to sleep and tend to our swollen knees and many insect bites and blisters collected over the past few days.
Back to our hostel in Taganga. We are welcomed by the family, our hosts, who have kept a watchful eye on our big backpacks. It is always good to step back into a familiar hostel, a home away from home. Like many hostels we have stayed in, this one has its quirky side....so many weird and wonderful ornaments, paintings, colour seem to decorate every wall. I must have counted at least 8 clocks hanging around the walls, not one working. 2 days later we are refreshed, laundry done, made contact with the kids at home, and ready to head off on a short loop with only day packs needed. Tayrona Park is another favourite place for backpackers in these parts. An hour bus ride and a short hour or two walk takes us into a beach paradise. Unfortunately, the word is out, as the crowds here make it overbearing. We have the choice of hammock or tent for accommodation, we opt for the tent with thin mattress, no bedding or pillows. It's like 'tent city' with all the gringos ( including us) living on top of each other all in the name of 'camping'! 2 nights in the tent was enough. The days, however, were great, as Leeanne and I would walk around headlands until we found secluded patches of beach away from the crowds. Carrying in our own food and water saved us a few bucks, as prices in the 'restaurant' are high. Coconuts are everywhere and free....just takes patience and determination to open them with only your hands.
We decide to keep going on our loop to Palomino, a small beach town another hour up the coast towards Venuzuela. 2 blokes on motorbikes greet us as we get off the bus. Next minute we are both on the back of the bikes zipping down dirt tracks towards a hostel.....no idea where we are heading....our instructions were simply 'economica' cheap hostel. We arrive at Finca Escondida, get a dorm bed each for COP 25000 ($13), and jump straight in the Caribbean Sea to cool off. This place is your typical chilled hostel, with lots of chilled people, an easy place to relax and do nothing. I did manage to burn up some energy with a game of beach volleyball and a bit of bodysurfing. They rented boards here but the surf was too messy. Leeanne gets talking to a girl in our dorm, an Aussie chick from the Gold Coast, only to discover that Leeanne was a really good friend of her father in high school 34 years ago. Talk about a 'small world'!
We arrive back at our hostel in Taganga, for the third time, do the washing again, and relax for a day before leaving the Carribean coast and making our way down through Columbia. Here we sit in the Santa Marta bus station waiting for our overnight bus to San Gil. It is 5.30pm
....but the bus doesn't leave til 9.30pm
....hope we get some sleep on the bus.
Sam's VIP hostal is one of the nicest setups we have seen, right on the ParqueCentral, it is a great place to base ourselves for a few days of paragliding, hiking, waterfall rappelling, and visiting the beautiful original colonial towns of Barichara and Guane.
What a shock to get off the bus to Villa de Leyva in our shorts and thongs only to find everyone in coats and woollen ponchos and its bloody cold!!! This town is a lovely larger version of Barichara which reportedly has South Americas second largest square. About 120 metres across.
We exit the bus station, strap on our packs and walk through town. First stop, the local supermarkado, and stock up on fresh food, milk and water before we look for a hostel for the night. Our choice is the Renacer hostel, about 1 km out of town, but a good base. 'Cheapskate Tours' kicks in here. We share a dorm room for 3 nights and cook most of our own meals, free coffee is a bonus. We spend most of our time around the town walking ( some call it trekking) anyway, we walk lots, following a dodgy hand drawn map. Of course, we get lost. Not the first time! We did get a chance to see a 120 million year old dinosaur fossil, still intact in its original place of discovery in 1977 . A huge 12 metre long marine monster....a cross between a croc and a great white....it's teeth were the size of a 12" cucumber. Impressive! Along our walk we also see the blue pool or Pozo Azul and tour an amazing Terracotta house straight out of the Grimms Fairytales.
The temperature here is the coldest we have experienced in over a year. We dig deep to the bottom of our backpacks to find our warm clothes, can't find many! We are definitely not prepared for the high altitude weather we are entering. After living in thongs, shorts and singlet tops for so long, we feel so uncomfortable. Wish I had a beanie!
Our last night in Villa de Leyva was fun. We walked down the hill into town, bought a 1 litre carton of cheap red wine , sat on the steps of the cathedral in front of the large square and watched the locals having fun trying to fly their kites. No wind....they just run round and round the cobblestone square with a kite in tow, running in to each other, strings tangled, kids falling flat on their faces, with the church choir music echoing from the walls of the old cathedral. Moments like these are priceless. We have been so fortunate and grateful to experience life in and amongst other cultures during our travels. Photos cannot capture most of these precious moments.....we simply store them in our memory banks!
It is one of the best things we have noticed about Central America and Columbia. They isnt the isolation of the suburbs of western cities. The towns are built around a Parque Central usually with the grandest church and everyone gathers around gossiping, eating, enjoying life and as in Columbia having a few beers. It is a wonderful atmosphere watching family's come out of church, buy the local street food specialty and a beer and enjoy an afternoon with family.
We excitedly leave Villa de Leyva for Bogota after making arrangements to meet our extended family. Diego's mum and younger sister live in a small apartment on the north side of Bogota, the capital city of Columbia. We walk in the door and are presented with a gift each. Slippers...mine are blue, Leeanne's are pink. From that moment on we are spoiled rotten with hospitality beyond belief, to the point it is somewhat overwhelming. The generosity and friendship is gratefully accepted and we both feel so humble. The comforts of a home are lapped up by us both, but we need to explain often to Nubia to slow down on the constant flow of food in our direction. I think she feels we need fattening up!
We are lucky to see Bogota from both a tourist level and also a local level. Sightseeing takes us into Centro, and on a Sunday it is the perfect day to walk around watching street entertainment at its craziest. Every Sunday about 70km of roads in the city are closed to traffic, with only bikes and pedestrians allowed.....a great idea, as it brings everyone out from their hideouts (namely their apartment houses). Some cool museums are on offer to visit, plus the Cerro de Monserratti atop the cliff side is a must. Cable car up, see spectacular views of the city from the cathedral, and ride a steep rail carriage back down, or you can walk if you feel energetic. Not today, we get our fair share of walking as it is.
The legs have never moved so much as they have over the last 16 months! Each day we venture out and explore some new part of the city, negotiating the complex bus system ( very well organised, actually) and return tired to our home away from home, complete with a lounge and large screen TV with lots of sports channels....I feel spoilt !
Leeanne enjoys the pampering, and carefully researches our next destinations...more to see in Columbia, and make our way into Ecuador before heading home to Oz....only 6 weeks to go!
We leave Bogota, and say our goodbyes to our family hosts, Mumma Nubia and 15yr old Laura. We are eternally grateful for their open warm hearted welcome. They took us into their home and catered for our every need...in true Colombian style. Bogota, as a capital city, doesn't have a lot to do or see. We did manage to master the TransMilenio system and explore most of the inner city on foot and finally get our Brazilian visas (only had to wait 6 working days to be processed !). Laura's birthday celebration at Andres Carne de Res was amazing with a Cirque de Soliel feel, with crazy actors and musicians.
Other highlights were the Botero Museum and Museo de Oro.
Our first stop after Bogota is a small sleepy country town called Solento. A comfortable 9 hr bus ride lands us here. The landscape is spectacular. I guess we will see plenty more mountain roads as we follow the Andes down into Ecuador. The buses here are modern, unlike the chicken buses of Central America, but the drivers are just as radical....hang on for a crazy ride!
This is coffee country....Colombia ranks as either 3 or 4 th in the world for coffee production depending on the harvest. We do a fabulously comprehensive tour with Tim, an expat Englishman and his Colombian staff. We cover everything from planting, picking, cleaning, drying, roasting and grinding the beans plus lots of tasting. We cover the town on foot, not an easy task due to its many hills, find a fabulous restaurant where we eat 3 nights in a row for 3 bucks each for three coarses including the local specialty truncha or trout. We set off early for a jeep ride to the Valle de Cocora. Ancient 80 metre high palm trees stand straight up in the foothills of the Andes. The 5 hour trek turns to 7 as we traverse the river at least 8 times and feed funny little animals queso (cheese), spot 8 different varieties of hummingbirds and marvel at the incredible palms.
A horse ride was also in order and Don Alvaro is recommended for his well looked after horses and tranquilo attitude. We didn't expect to be descending 500 metres through a narrow canyon, or passing through old railway tunnels to an amazing hidden waterfall. It was an incredible ride which reaffirms our thoughts that Salento is a beautiful location.
We decide to move south toward the Ecuador border but Colombia has other plans for us. We arrive at the Armenia bus station.....no buses to Popayan due to the Campesino blockades......more on this later. We make a spur of the moment decision to head south west to the Tatacoa Desierto. Numerous changes of transport find us in the unusual moon like landscape. We stay in a little hospedaje where they rustle up a plata del dia and we go for a pitch black walk to the astronomical observatory only to find the Astronomer didn't turn up so we walk the kilometre back, it is sososo dark in the desert, no lights anywhere. The next morning we get a motorbike to tour around the crazy place and then take a collectivo to Neiva. It had the usual delays, you know loading 2 boats on the roof whilst the fisherman all jump on board and we detour to drop them off at a river to fish. Apparently this happens todo los dia (every day).
We arrive in Neiva and get on a bus to Pitalito for the trip to San Agustine. It is after 3 by the time we leave as one man is demanding his numbered seat whist everyone else sat wherever. He turned out to be the biggest 'pain in the arse'. Anyway, this was to be an exciting trip as we passed many Campesino camps where the farmers have set up blockades to protest the prices they are getting for their produce. It has been disrupting the traffic for over a week all over Colombia and we are delayed several times following the protesters, we are told to close all windows and draw the blinds in case of rocks being thrown. The bloke opposite me is hiding low in the aisle. There are army and police everywhere but they are not interfering. We arrive thinking we would miss the last collectivo to San Agustin but were thrilled to see a lone truck waiting for us. It is late when we knock on the locked doors of El Jardin hostel. Our hosts come to the door, an elderly couple, she is dressed in her PJs and he is wearing his poncho and large white cowboy hat. They have a collection of animal skins nailed to a wall, a clock with loose hands spins out of control. We wake in the morning to the sound of large parrots talking and squawking in the hostel, noisy bloody pets. The old lady gives them more attention than us...and we are the only guests in the place.
The archeological sites are worth a visit here in San Augustin. 2 nights in 'faulty towers' hostel is enough and we decide to move on. Not sure which direction, as the farmers protests have closed many roads towards Ecuador. We are forced to backtrack to Popayan. We are getting a taste of Colombian civil unrest, making us even keener to reach the Ecuador border. 3 days later we are pretty much stuck (trapped) in Popayan, so close to the Ecuadorian border, but impossible to reach by land. The anti-government protests have escalated to the extent roads are blockaded and no bus companies risk driving on them, especially to where we want to go, namely Ecuador. We sit it out at a nice hostel called Parklife, right on the main square. We are lucky to have a room overlooking the park and square, and we spend much of our time watching the mass protests below. Paint bombs are being thrown in our direction, time to close the windows! We spend a lot of our time in the hostel researching the protest situation and catch up on new developments with other backpackers and staff....lots of guesswork and speculation. We make a calculated decision (and expensive) to buy plane tickets to Ecuador. This means trying to backtrack 3 hours to Cali airport. We are told the road should be open. We arrive in Cali after passing only a couple of minor blockades, tree branches, boulders and fires on the road. Cali itself is trouble free. A large city, home to Salsa dancing, it gives us time to relax and stay safe until our flight in 3 days to Ecuador. We walk and explore the area around our hostel each day. Cali seems very modern, with lots of shopping and modern buildings. The older part of town still retains the buildings and culture of days gone by.
We are ready to leave Colombia, and venture into Ecuador, our final country on this amazing journey. Despite the civil unrest we have witnessed in the last 2 weeks, Colombia remains one of our favourite countries we have visited. The people are passionate, warm and extremely friendly. Willing to talk and listen to us on almost every occasion. Our Spanish has improved thanks to the many inquisitive Colombians we have met over the last 7 weeks. We have felt safe here, the food and accommodation excellent, and fairly cheap too. Transport is easy, buses are well organised and usually trouble free. From the northern Caribbean coast down through the high mountain ranges of the Andes, the Colombian landscape is spectacular. Coffee plantations are scattered across the green slopes as many rivers and streams wind their way down towards the coastline. A beautiful country and one one we will return to again, one day.