5 Colombians in a room invariably turns into a party – Gabriel Garcia Marquez…

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South America » Colombia » Cali
May 17th 2013
Published: June 12th 2013
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Hummingbird - Valle de CocuraHummingbird - Valle de CocuraHummingbird - Valle de Cocura

The little blighter sort of stayed still long enough to get this shot!
Before arriving in Colombia I had heard nothing but positive reports from other travellers that had recently visited, with many saying with a knowing look that I would end up spending a lot longer here than I expected! I hate to pander to the stereotypes but they were exactly right, as I've already been here 6 weeks and this may be the first country where I have to do a nifty quickstep across the nearest border to renew a visa, as the three months I was given doesn't look like its going to be enough!

The trip didn't start too auspiciously with a looooong bus (close to 24 hours instead of the expected 14-15) from Ecuador, which reached the southern town of Popoyan so late in the day that all the buses to my intended destination of Tierradentro had already upped and left!! Anyway, for a town I only visited by accident it turned out to be very pleasant, with its nickname of the “white city” earned through its well preserved historic centre which was great to wander around. It was also very close to Volcan Purace, a 4,750 metre peak supposedly offering superb views. The limited selection of public
Another hike, another cracking view...!!Another hike, another cracking view...!!Another hike, another cracking view...!!

Believe it or not there's a massive volcano crater just behind me!
transport meant a brutal 4a.m. start to get the first bus, and in the station I bumped into a couple of travellers from the Basque Country who were incredibly friendly and also bonkers enough to attempt the hike with me!!

After climbing from the road to the ranger station we were kindly informed that there was another 1,300 metres of vertical ascent to make to the summit. Hmmm – not quite the walk in the park I had been expecting, but the Cotopaxi training meant that the walk was no problem – although nature conspired to make it as tough as possible with a delightful combination of steep, muddy paths, hammering rain, freezing temperatures and for the last hour or two a complete white out which meant that I didn't even get a hint of a sniff of a view!! The panorama may have been the equivalent of a Peruvian tripe soup, but the steak that evening to celebrate making the summit was certainly out of the top drawer!!

My delayed trip to Tierradentro then became even more delayed, first by landslides and then by the bus breaking down, but luckily I hitched a ride on the back
I found this photo from my year five art class...I found this photo from my year five art class...I found this photo from my year five art class...

...Artwork from the Paez culture more than 1,000 years ago
of a pickup for the last few miles so did make it before nightfall! Tierradentro is a tiny village with a huge number of tombs left by the Paez culture in the 6th to 10th centuries. Aside from the tombs, the main attraction was its location at the base of the beautiful San Andres valley, which afforded great hiking opportunities, as, if I'm brutally honest, the tombs – although I'm sure archaeologically incredibly significant and described in my guide as “awe-inspiring archaeological wonders” – were not anything that Indiana Jones would have even bothered getting out of bed for. With my cynical hat on I’d say they were pretty much big underground holes, covered in paintings that I could have knocked up in year 5 art class!! Also after seeing the first two or three, the remaining 15 or 20 virtually identical tombs didn't seem so appealing – but the lovely walks between them, along with the superb weather, led to a very pleasant stay of a few days, combining sessions of Spanish study in the mornings with my very non Lara Croft-like tomb raiding in the afternoons!!

From Tierradentro I moved onto Cali – salsa capital of Colombia
Partying too hard...Partying too hard...Partying too hard...

Tierradentro was famous for its beautiful thatched church, unfortunately over the easter weekend they partied a little too hard and it caught fire, leaving this behind.
and most probably the world!! Salsa is in the blood of the locals, and seemingly anyone that was born and bred there can dance like they should be a professional in Strictly Come Dancing!! It might not come as a surprise to my readers (and I use the plural speculatively) that I may have struggled somewhat to keep up with the pro’s moves, but I certainly gave it a go and hopefully didn’t disgrace myself too much!! I used Cali as a base to study for a couple of weeks before striking on further north. I had been a bit worried about the potential expense of Spanish classes in Colombia (cursory research of group classes with one of the main language schools in the capital Bogota revealed some pretty eye watering prices) so I was very pleased to find a friendly, enthusiastic and good value private tutor in Cali who pushed me hard to advance my Spanish, and I’m pretty sure it has been paying dividends.

The reason for Colombia’s popularity was starting to become slightly clearer to me as I continued my travels, and for a country that had an incredible diversity of landscapes – including both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, Andean peaks, cloud forests, deserts and jungles, I can say that although these factors are all admittedly superb it’s the people that really make this place. They’re just so friendly and accommodating, a fact made even more amazing as the country has basically had an internal conflict continuing for the last 50 years (known as “la violencia”, the most visible aspect of it has been the battle between government forces and the left wing guerrilla movement of the FARC. I’m sure I’ll wax lyrical on this during future blogs as and when I learn more about the conflict – especially as it is now hopefully coming to a democratic end with ongoing peace talks in Havana).

Everyone from the shop assistants, to the taxi drivers to the locals that you meet when destroying their beloved Salsa moves on the dancefloor are just so friendly. I’ve never heard the phrases “con gusto” (gladly/with pleasure) and “a la orden” (at your service/happy to help) heard so frequently!! Its been a real pleasure to travel around and mix with the Colombians!!

Another example of the Colombian friendliness was shown when I took a day trip to the isolated village of San Cipriano – famous for the river based national park of the same name. The community is so isolated that no roads lead to it, but there is an old railway line knocking about which connects it the 15km to the nearest road. Like winning contestants on scrapheap challenge the locals have fashioned together an ingenious/suicidal form of transport involving a small wooden platform bodged onto the frame of a motorbike, through which the rear wheel of the motorbike is in contact with one of the rails and propels you through the jungle at ridiculous speeds. You might think this is all good fun, but then you factor in that there is only a single rail, and the “brujitas” have no brakes, then you get to understand the advice to wear sturdy shoes in case you have to jump clear in an emergency!! Luckily the crude designs generate so much friction that when the driver is confronted by another Brujita coming the other way, he simply has to release the power and change down the gears that it “usually” pulls up pretty sharply and without incident!!

I had originally planned to hire a tractor inner tube and spend an afternoon lazily floating down a river, but on arrival I bumped into four friendly (but as mentioned above that goes without saying in Colombia) Caleños (people from Cali) who had hired a guide to show them round the rivers and waterfalls that the national park is famous for. Luckily they invited me to join them (I’m sure for my sparkling conversation rather than the fact that my contribution made the tour cheaper for each of them!!).

It actually turned out to be a pretty involved hike, up hill and down dale in the heat of the day, and we visited two major falls; the first and tallest was the type of waterfall you see in films with a pool perfect for swimming and a recess behind the actual cascade where you could sit and revel in the experience of watching a waterfall from within. The second falls were a demonstration of pure power, as no matter how hard you tried to stand in front of them the onrushing tonnes of water would always knock you off your feet and sweep you like a rag doll into the waiting natural swimming pool!

The rain started at these final cascades, and when I say rain I mean of biblical proportions! We got a full demonstration of how quickly the waters can rise in those torrential conditions as when returning one of the bridges we had crossed not 40 minutes earlier was inundated with water and we were wading across knee deep!! Unsurprisingly, the now raging rivers made me think better of my original plan to hire an inner tube and go for a “relaxing” float downstream!!

Moving north from Cali I arrived at the home of Colombia’s most positive export – coffee!! My base was Salento, but of course there are probably a myriad of towns and villages in the coffee region where you can visit the plantations, or “fincas”, with their varying various scales from small family run businesses to much larger and more mechanised operations. Our tour was of the Finca Don Elias, and it definitely fell into family run end of the scale – made all the more pleasant by the fact that it was given by the grandson of the owner! We got to see the coffee being grown, dried, roasted and then ground – along with an obligatory cup at the end of the tour. Given that I am not a coffee fan at all this was never going to be the best part of the tour for me, but given Don Elias is aiming his finca at small scale, high end production I have to admit that it was probably the best cup I’ve ever tasted – although being honest there probably isn’t all that much competition!! As well as growing coffee on the finca, there was a goodly supply of other fruits, from bananas and platanos to pineapples, which left me surprisingly fascinated as it was the first time I had seen them in the wild and the small plants that grow such a big fruit took me by surprise!!

But for me the main reason to visit Salento was the hiking in the nearby Valle de Cocura – home of Colombia’s national tree, the Wax Palm. Although this may not sound like the most awe inspiring of sights, I’ll try and convince you otherwise!! They’re the world’s largest palm trees and stretch up to 60 metres in height. Set amid the misty green hills that punctuate that part of Colombia (and the day I was there
A pineapple...A pineapple...A pineapple...

Don't know why it took my fancy this much, but it just did OK!!
they were very misty indeed!!) they are an impressive sight!! Along the way we also encountered a charm of hummingbirds (and yes I did look up the collective noun!!) which were great to see in the wild and obviously incredibly difficult to photograph, so after seemingly hundreds of attempts I was surprisingly pleased with the results!!

Another highlight was the form of transport that we took – the venerable Willys Jeep (the manufacturer’s name for it rather than me trying to make a tasteless joke!!). They started appearing after World War II and remarkably the ones I rode in seemed to be the only form of transport that I have experienced thus far in South America that was actually in good condition – the owners taking pride in driving smoothly in order to keep their precious motors free of dents and dings!! Unfortunately the ancient design meant that the smell of diesel fumes was so overpoweringly strong that you actually wanted the driver to go a bit faster to more quickly end the life expectancy reducing damage that was being done to your lungs!!

My final meal in Salento was a massive surprise – in a positive way!! I wandered into the slightly random Italian/India fusion restaurant not expecting very much at all – those not being cuisines that sit particularly well together, especially when being interpreted by a South American chef! But I was bowled over by the quality of my meal and safe to say I didn’t leave a scrap of food on the plate. It certainly beat the llama tikka masala I ate in La Paz hands down!! (http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g1580963-d2096349-r119413391-La_Eliana-Salento_Quindio_Department.html)

A quaint/ingenious thing that I have really enjoyed about Colombia is the inventiveness of the seemingly irrepressible mobile phone vendors. Colombia is still in a mode where contracts are very expensive and to call someone on another network using a pay as you go mobile costs the equivalent of a month’s salary! Wily entrepreneurs have cottoned onto this fact and almost every street corner offers “minutos”, someone who has got a contract mobile phone and will lend you it in order to call you friends, charging you only a fraction of the price that you would otherwise have to fork out on your own phone! Thus, most people seem to have pay as you go phones with no credit, and use them simply to receive
Wax palms - Valle de cocuraWax palms - Valle de cocuraWax palms - Valle de cocura

These were the tallest examples we found, and may have got close to the 60 metre height that was mentioned in the guidebook.
calls and as an address book for when they need to call their friends!

Surprising quirks like these are what I’ve been finding all over in my foray through Colombia, and I’m sure it will continue as I plan to continue studying Spanish (and working on my dance moves!) in Cali before at some point being dragged away and striking north!

Additional photos below
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Willy's JeepWilly's Jeep
Willy's Jeep

The only way to travel in rural Colombia!! Note I didn't travel in this one - it was an example I found online and have used to illustrate what can be achieved with a little effort!!

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