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Southern Colombia

UNITED KINGDOM | Friday, 27 July 2012 | Views [290]

Wax Palms, Coffee and proof the world is very small

After flying back to Bogota from the rainforest, our first stop was Salento, a small town of about 3,500 people in the coffee growing region of Colombia. We stayed in a lovely hostel run by a modern day English Eccentric gentleman who had also bought a nearby coffee farm. He recommended a restaurant round the corner, he mentioned that the couple had moved from London about a year and a half ago, and their names....and it all started to sound far too familiar to Phil whose ex-boss had moved back to Colombia recently. We went into the restaurant and yep, Phils old boss, Elena was running a restaurant in this small village with her husband Jesus! It was very good. The best curry we have had in South America, and a very good Paella too! As Salento is in the coffee region, we also did a coffee plantation tour and learnt all about the process, though Phil was not converted and I had to finish his coffee at the end of the tour. His comment was "I'd rather have tea".

The area is also famous for its ridiculously tall wax palms, which grow up to 60m tall. We did a day walk in the Valle de Corcora, which included a stop at a cafe with hummingbird feeders. This was our first lot of hummingbirds, and we spent ages trying to get a good photo (ideally without the red plastic feeder on it) - they move bloody quickly! On another day we did a guided tour to the next valley, Valle Carbonera, to see even more wax palms in an even more spectacular setting. We booked the tour late and had to stand on the foot plate at the back of the jeep all the way, hanging onto a thin metal bar, on 90 minutes of bumpy unsealed road. I couldn't uncurl my fingers when we got there as they were so stiff from clinging on for dear life!

As Salento is quite a small town there was not a lot to do in the evening, so we found ourselves at the local Tejo venue. It's free to play Tejo as long as you keep buying beer. It's a little bit like the French game petanque. However it is played on a longer court, the weight is heavier and is thrown a lot higher, and you are always aiming for a metal bullseye embedded in a rectangle of clay. To add a little more excitement to the combination of beer and throwing heavy metal weights, they tack little packets of gunpowder onto the bullseye, and if you make these explode you get bonus points. The full court was probably 12m long, but we played on the beginners/gringo court which was about 5m long.

The stone statues of San Agustin

San Agustin is a small town surrounded by (UNESCO world heritage listed) archaeological sites dating from 0AD to 700AD. The sites are characterised by stone carved statues, which usually guard a tomb. There are plenty of them, scattered across the countryside, though most of the tombs that are open for display are the ones that grave-robbers had already plundered. When the Spanish arrived, guns and disease wiped out 95% of the indigenous population, which is why no knowledge remains of these ancient civilisations.

From San Agustin it was one final trip across the Andes, on an unsealed road, and then down to Ecuador. We stopped just north of the border to go to Sanctuary Las Lajas. This is a reasonably modern church, built over a steep gorge, where the Virgin Mary apparently appeared to a local girl halfway up the gorge wall. Now people flock there for the Virgin Mary to perform miracles on their behalf. It's apparently second only to Lourdes for the number of miracles attributed to it, and the walls of the gorge leading down to the church were covered in hundreds of plaques giving thanks for the miracles.

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