Published: November 28th 2010November 27th 2010
We came to South America without Colombia particularly in our sights, although we were planning to come here. All the stories over the years of kidnapping and the drug war had made us a little apprehensive of Colombia like most of us in the west. However, the more people we spoke to who had been through Colombia, the more we were looking forward to it.
So we got to the border of Colombia with Ecuador, again all ready for the bag searches for drugs and weapons that we had been told to expect. However, this turned out to be the simplest crossing we had done so far. We literally strolled into Colombia and were in the country before we knew it. Only becuase of experience of previous crossings we knew that we would have to go and find the passport control and not wait for them to come find us like you experience at home. Passports stamped and not a bag search in sight, nor customs for that matter we got into a collectivo shared taxi for the journey to the bus station. So there we were with two Colombians in the car with us, surrounded by dozens of trucks
and we simply rolled through the passport control buildings without being checked or anything. We could (like I imagine some of the trucks carry) walked into Colombia without a passport check nor search for contraband, funny after we had expected so much hassle.
Our first jouney up to Popayan was long and uneventful except for a local guy trying to talk to us. Already we had experienced how friendly Colombians can be. Our lack of conversational spanish and his complete lack of English didn´t make for a long discussion on world affairs but it was nice that someone just wanted to talk to us, particularly after how unfriendly some people had been along our trip. The buis wasn´t the greatest, comfortable but it had very very dark tinting two thirds of the way down the window which meant it was almost impossible to see any of the amazing scenery outside.
Popayan is a rather grand old colonial city, big white buildings and wide streets and squares. Very impressive and there were lots of locals milling around which gave it a really nice atmosphere. We didn´t get up to a lot except go for some amazing coffee in this
brilliant little cafe. Buzzing along happily after the first decent coffee for months (and they had about 30 different types and none of your Starbucks skinny latte crapachino rubbish) we checked out this proper old school Colombian bar. You´d miss it if you didn´t know it was there it was a dark little bar with all sorts of stuff pinned to the walls and a huge selection of LPs and CDs behind the bar which the 60 something owner played salsa and other latin American music. It was great to just have a beer and get some proper Colombian atmosphere for an hour or two and we were the only two in there.
We set off from Popayan for the coffee region, in particular Salento which is in the middle of the country. After a short but rather epic jouney of a long distance bus, local bus and then a jeep we arrived at our hostel which was set in the middle of the countryside. Although Salento is a small town set around a beautiful square we had chosen to stay a finca or small town a couple of kms outside. The finca was one of the best places
we´d stayed and had only been open a few months. It had a fantastic lounge with brilliant music CDs with big sofas to relax in. We also had an entire 10 bed dorm to ourselves. We knew we were going to be happy there for a few days and everyone we met were so friendly and in the same mindset as us. The weather wasn´t great there in the hills and it frequently rained but this meant that the surrounding countryside was lush green hills all around, a stark contrast to the dustiness of the mountains down south. The following day we walked down to a coffee farm which turned out to be a little shack surrounded by coffee plants. After a tour, solely in Spanish which we understood some of and nodded politely to the rest we got to taste some of the coffee grown on the farm which was as you´d expect pretty amazing. The following day we set out for a valley nearby which was pretty spectacular with these hugely tall palm trees which seem really out of place and are used to produce wax which comes from their leaves. The only problem with the walking track
was that it was very muddy and it turned into a bit of an assault course at times hanging from barbed wire fences to avoid shin height mud. That and it poured with rain most of the way. Apart from the rain and mud it was a nice walk and the plam trees were pretty amazing.
From Salento we took a bus to Bogota. We arrived in Bogota after dark which didn´t give us a very good impression of the city. However, in the morning we were pleasantly surprised byt how nice the city was. It was a National holiday in the city ( how do we manage to arrive everywhere on a holiday' or it just that there is a holiday every week on this continent?) so the centre was shut off to cars and quiet. We enjoyed some time walking around the centre admiring the architecture and various churches.
After a few days in Bogota and some debate we decided to take the bus to Cartegena. The more expensive although quicker flying option lost out to the cheaper 20 hour bus journey. So, we boarded our bus prepared for a long 20 hour journey which turned
out to be 24 hours! Needless to say we arrived in Cartegena a bit worse for wear although were glad to feel the Caribbean heat when we finally emerged from the bus.
Cartegena is a port town surrounded by old city walls. It is very pretty so we spent our first few days just taking in the sights and enjoying the sunset while sitting on the city walls. On our third day we took a boat trip to the Islas de Rosario which are a group of islands about an hour from Cartegena. On one island we stopped at an aquarium where we saw some huge fish and dolphins performing. On the trip we visited Playa Blanca which is famous for its white sand and relatively isolated state. We were both a bit disappointed with the beach as it was not as tranquil as everyone makes out. Lots of touts and tourists on the beach so it didn´t feel so isolated. After some good fish for lunch and time in the sun we headed back to Cartegena.
The next day we took a bus to Taganga further along the coast. Taganga is a small fishing town with not
a whole lot going on apart from nice beaches, Caribbean sea and relaxing. Just what we needed. The weather is a lot fresher than humid Cartegena although still very warm and frequent storms at night. We spent a few days on the beach here before heading to Tayrona National Park where we planned to spend 4 or 5 days.
We were dropped off at the entrance to the national park and proceeded to walk down the track in the direction of the beach and where we were to stay. The track very rapidly disintegrated into very deep, very wet and unavoidable mud, not quite what we had in mind when we thought we were going to the beach! The track through the rainforest said on a sign that it would take about 45 mins but it was clear from the start that it would take a lot longer than this. The rainforest was impressive in its own right with tall trees and vines hanging from them. However it was hard not to forget the mud. It began to get so deep and sticky that we had to take our flip flops off and walk bear foot through the often
over ankle deep mud, trying not to think what was buryed deep underneath it and trying to avoid the sticks and big thorns that littered the path. The walk was well worth it though when eventually we came out overlooking the most amazing beach, which was completely empty and backed by deep green rainforest on one side and blue ocean on the other. We walked for another 10 mins down the beach and came upon the first place we were to stay called Arrecifes. The accomodation is basic as you´d expect and we slept that night in hammocks overlooking the sea, a pretty amazing place to wake up. The national park is a series of linked beaches so we walked onto another beach where it was safe to swim. This meant walking through more mud and crossing a river but was worth it as we got to buy some huge pain au chocolate from a little baker on the way. The first beach we got to was called La Piscina (the swimming pool) and was aptly named although the beach was pretty shallow so we had to build a little fort around us to stop rogue waves soaking us. We
then walked onto another beach where we were to stay the second night, again in hammocks. This beach was much busier, well relitively busier, with lots more backpackers, partly becuase you could get to this one by boat from Taganga, avoiding the national park fee. There was a better atmosphere with more people around but the campsite was clearly sitting on its laurels. The facilities were basic to say the least, communal mixed showers, horrible toilets and one sink for the entire campsite. The hammocks were also bad with no mosquito nets and so close to each other that you were woken all the time by the person next to you turning over. We slept little and although the location was great and the food quite good we were happy to head back to Arrecifes the next day, after spending a few hours at La Piscina on the way. We spent another couple of nights in Arricifes, not doing a lot, reading and swimming before heading back through the mud to Taganga.
We´ve just been in Taganga for a few days now and we´re about to embark on the next leg of our trip. We´ll be flying down to
the tip of Colombia to a place called Leticia where Colombia meets with Brazil and Peru. From there we´re planning to get a slow boat to Manuas in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. The trip will be four days and then from there we are getting a plane across the amazon to the coast of Brazil, Salvador.
There are more photos below