Of coffee country, hot springs and stray dogs (Southern Colombia)

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October 20th 2022
Published: October 23rd 2022
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(Day 112 on the road) The area south of Medellin is coffee country. My flight from Cartagena put me right in the thick of it, in the city of Pereira. And thus I spent the next few weeks exploring the region, starting with some beautiful hot springs near the village of Santa Rosa de Cabal, before moving on to the hot springs near Manizales. Now, Manizales is one of those second-rate Colombia’s cities which most people have probably never heard of. But they are one of Colombia’s cities I have seen that have incorporated cable cars into their public transport system. It is ingenious really: As Manizales lies in pretty hilly terrain, the bus terminal is located not near the city center, but at the bottom of a hill, right next to a cable car station. From there, the teleferico whisks you right into the city center in no time. Cable cars really are a game changer in some of the cities here.

The other, slightly different mode of transportation here in the coffee region are old US jeeps called Willy. They are the (often colourful) working horses of many places and are everywhere, plying the hilly routes, offering transport to virtually any place in the mountains. They are anything but comfortable, given that they a) are about 70 years old and b) normally transport as many people as physically possible (plus a few more who have to stand on the back and hold onto something), but they are just a very cool and iconic way to move around with for shorter distances.

With this being one of the world’s most famous coffee producing regions, I certainly wanted to know a bit more about how they grow the coffee here. To that end, I visited a place called Hacienda Venecia, close to the city of Manizales. I intended to take the coffee tour and maybe spend a night before moving on. I ended staying a week: While a room at the main house of the hacienda was way above my budget at ~150 Euros a night, they also had an 8 Euro a night hostal a few minutes’ walk away, set in a beautifully lush garden, complete with comfy hammocks and splendid view of the surrounding coffee plantation. And as so often in Colombia, I was the only guest in this little slice of paradise. I spent my days walking through the extensive coffee plantations, trailrunning in the evening, and generally taking it easy for a few days.

One thing I learned is – probably not strange from a capitalist point of view - that for a long time, the best quality coffee was exported, ironically leaving the big producer Colombia with only second-rate coffee (and “Tinto”) in their own country. However, since a few years ago, more and more high-quality coffees hops have sprung up in the region, offering excellent quality brew, often single origin from a local coffee farm down the road. It is fair to say that I sampled a good number of these cafes here in the region.

Next up for me were the two highland coffee towns of Salento and Filandia. While relaxed Salento is firmly on the Gringo trail and attracts a lot of tourists from all over the world, I enjoyed its smaller sister-town of Filandia, just an hour down the road, a bit more. It had a more relaxed feel to it, with Colombian and foreign tourists mingling in its pretty streets and chic cafes, serving high-quality coffee from local producers. While in the region, I also visited the famous Cocora valley, where I did a beautiful day-hike across the valley and its unique wax palm trees.

After that, I was ready for some big city infusion. While many people had warned me about how dangerous Cali (still) is, I figured no trip to Colombia would be complete without visiting this famous city. I took the usual precautions I did in all bigger cities here – only taking ride-sharing taxis, leaving everything at the hotel that I didn’t really need for the day, not walking around much after nightfall, not taking my phone out on the streets, and generally being extra-aware of my surroundings. I decided to spent some of my hotel points I collected in a different (pre-Covid) life and spend one night at the 5* Marriott Cali. Pretty nice, indeed, especially the gym and spa. Unfortunately, silly me managed to burn my left hand pretty badly in the sauna, ending my very enjoyable visit prematurely.

Surprisingly also, breakfast was not included at the Marriott, and was a whopping 36 Euros extra. Considering that a night at the hotel costs a cool 250 Euros and that the monthly minimum wage - for instance for coffee pickers – is ~220 dollars a month, this is pretty weird. Especially since the places that I normally stay in costs between 10-20€ a night and usually have breakfast included. Certainly not comparable to what a luxury hotel would dish up, but still.

Other than that, Cali was a mixed bag. There wasn’t really much to see or do. While the view over the city from the mountain of Los Tres Cruzes and the neighborhood of San Antonio were pleasant enough, the rest of the city had a rough edge to it. It is one those Colombia’s citizens were the hotel told me not to walk left when leaving the hotel, and who wanted to send their armed security guard with me when I wanted to pop over to the pharmacy literally one block down. Or where a woman on the bus warned me not to take my phone out in public. And a city where almost everybody is wearing their backpacks in front, never on their back. And I am not talking just after dark, they do it at any time of the day.

I also had a weird experience walking literally three blocks from the upmarket neighborhood of San Antonio, only to find myself in a very rough area, with lots of shady people around and homeless people loitering. The chic cafes and the prevalent poverty of Colombia were right next to each other here. It is sometimes easy to forget that Colombia is still a very poor country indeed. And the crisis in neighboring Venezuela has created an additional strain on the country, with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees in the country.

To be fair though, the street art was simply spectacular in Cali, especially in and around San Antonio. This is a recurring theme all across Colombia, not just in the bigger cities. Even the smallest village high up the Andean mountains will boast some amazingly cool street art. And it is not restricted to touristy sights either. One can walk around a fairly rough area of downtown Cali and still stumble across a completely ordinary parking lot, but they have painted their walls with high quality street art that is simply beautiful. It never fails to amaze me when I see it, even though by now I should be used to it.

After Cali, my next stop and certainly one of the highlights in this part of Colombia was the small Andean village of Silvia. Every Tuesday, the local farmers of the indigenous Guambiano tribe come down to the village to sell their produce and socialize. I bumped into German Brita during breakfast, and together we explored the countryside above the city, stumbling onto a local funeral at the cemetary. It’s hard to find the right words to describe it, but it was a very special experience, especially after meeting a local family there (and taking a few group pictures all around). Do check out my pictures on Flickr; this will give you better impression of the people of Silva.

If only they had any kind of insulation - let alone heating - in their hotels. It can be pretty brutal: While days are mostly fine with temperatures around 20 degrees, it gets really cold once the sun sets. And when the temperatures drop down to between 5 and 10 degrees outside and with many doors or windows here not closing properly (and no heating), it gets very cold indoors as well. I actually measured it in Silvia, and it was 12 degrees in my hotel room. Trust me, that is very cold when you are just sitting around. There is often no other way than to crawl into bed pretty early and hunker down under two (or four) warm blankets as soon as your return home at night. On evenings where I maybe want to go through my pictures on my laptops and not crawl straight into bed, the only way is to wear every warm piece of clothing I have, including hat and gloves. Also, blankets provided are more often than not inadequate; I had nights where I was sleeping in my shirt, my jumper and my down-vest on because it was so bloody cold. It’s OK for a couple of weeks, but I would certainly find it tough living like this permanently.

Moving on from Silvia, and after a two-day stint in pleasant Popayan, I spent a little more time than planned at some nearby hot springs in the village of Coconuco. The best ones were the remote Termales Salinas, high up in the Andes on a rough road. Isolated as they were, I was able to rent a basic wooden Cabana right next to the hot springs, who were - amazingly - open 24 hours. After 21h, all day visitors were gone, and I had the whole place for myself. Sitting in the hot waters at 2.800 meters under the stars, life was perfect.

The next day however, my luck run out. With less than a week left on my 90-day visa, I spent a day and a half in the tiny village of Coconuco, unable to find any bus (or car or lorry) going south. Every single one of the (infrequent) buses was full, and I spent hours and hours standing by the road until I finally gave up at nightfall and went looking for small hospedaje. The next morning was no better, but I had positioned myself right in front of the heavily fortified local police station. I told them my story, and after the usual talk about German football and after enlightening them to things that the Euro and not the US Dollar is the currency used in Germany/ Europe and that the language of Germany is not English but - wait for it – German, they gave it all they had in stopping lorries and buses to help me move south. After 4h of doing this on day two, a bus driver stopped by the friendly policeman finally took pity on me. Although his bus was full already, he still squeezed me in.

But boy, it was a very rough 5-hour ride. I am not good with curvy roads (or choppy sea) to start with, but this ride in the back of the bus - sitting low on the floor as all seats were taken - through the hilly Andes on mostly unpaved road was pure horror. After a lunch-stop I convinced the driver with all I had that I could ride in front in the driver’s cabin. There were already three other passengers in a space made for one person, but they were sympathetic with the silly extranjero with the bad command of the Spanish language, and we all squeezed in together. It was uncomfortable as anything, but at least I could look out the window and didn’t have to throw up.

With this delay, my last few days in Colombia turned out more hectic - and certainly less pleasant - than I would have liked them to be. I had tried to prolong my 90-day visa, but it didn’t work out somehow. While the Colombian immigration department has a slick online form for visa extensions, they never got back to me after I had filled out the application two weeks prior. Emails to them bounced (“mailbox full”), and when I had a Spanish speaker from my hostel in Popayan call them, they were not helpful at all. While a British guy whom I met on a bus journey and who had lived here for 16 years says he wouldn’t worry about it too much, I still didn’t want to overstay my visa; who knows what consequences this has down the line.

After rushing through the UNESCO World Heritage site of the San Agustin Archaeological Park (and the beautifully remote waterfall El Cinco), it was really time to get cracking. Progress was slow however – the mountain roads here high up in the Andean mountains are in dismal shape, mostly unpaved and often too narrow for two cars to pass each other. The worst, yet at the same time most stunning – stretch was from Mocoa to Pasto, on a road called Trampolin de la Muerte. Go figure. I certainly didn’t want to do this part of the trip after nightfall, so after the trip from San Agustin to Mocoa took much longer than anticipated, I had to stop for the night in Mocoa. It was fairly average, mid-sized Colombian city: The traffic was awful, it was noisy, lots of pollution from the traffic, and generally fairly unpleasant. While there are certainly lovely cities in the country, the average towns here are not very nice at all - a stark contrast to the otherwise beautiful and stunning country that Colombia is.

The night in Mocoa was fairly typical to most nights here in Colombia, no matter where I slept in the last three months: It is quite hard to get a good night’s sleep here, and it’s starting to wear me out a bit. This is mainly due to the noise; there simply is almost never any quiet night. The root cause is that windows and doors here don’t close properly; there is very little noise isolation from outside. The worst nuisance are probably the street dogs. The barking of dogs is a constant part of life here, and at night it is especially annoying, as even good quality earplugs cannot shut out the persistent, hoarse barking that often goes on all night. Then of course there is the traffic noise, mainly from motorbikes with broken or pimped exhausts, from old busses and heavy lorries. In the lucky event that your room is not facing a noisy street, it will be the noise from other guests, as many hotels here are organized around a central courtyard. Quite nice, but since – see above - most windows or doors don’t close properly, you can hear everything from anybody. And boy, do the Colombians like to watch their TV late at night or their Salsa music at 7 in the morning. Then of course there are the roosters, which are active anywhere between 4 and 6 o’clock. Add to this the fact that none of the windows have any curtains that actually block out any light, it is usually bright as day by 6 o’clock. And taken all the above together means that it is just very hard to sleep well here. The few times I had a quiet and dark room, I enjoyed it thoroughly and sleep like a baby. Ah….

Anyhow, after the rough yet beautiful 6 hour bus ride on the Trampolin de la Muerte road, it was only a short 2h-hop on the smooth Panamericana the next day down to the Ecuadorian border, the Rumichaca International Bridge. I left early in the morning and managed to squeeze in a detour to the stunning church of Las Lajas in Ipiales, recently voted by the Telegraph to be the most beautiful church in the world. It was a very nice ending indeed to my time in the country.

In the end, I left Colombia two hours before sunset on the very last day of my 90-day-visum. A bit tighter than I liked it, but it is what it is. All in all, I had an amazing time in Colombia and wish I could have stayed a bit longer. But now Ecuador awaits, and I am excited to explore a new country. Onwards!

My route in Colombia: Medellin - Guatape - Rio Claro - Bogota - Zipaquira - Villa de Leyva - Paipa - Tunja - Guadalupe - Barichara - San Gil - Bucaramanga - Santa Marta - Ciudad Perdida - Minca - Paolomino - Laguna Navio Quebrado - Cabo de la Vela - Punta Gallinas - Tayrona - Cartagena - Islas del Rosario – Pereira - Santa Rosa de Cabal – Manizales – Salento – Filandia – Cali – Silvia – Popayan – Coconuco - San Agustin - Mocoa – Pasto - Ipiales.

Next stop: Tulcan (Northern Ecuador).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com.

Bonus reading – a few words about street dogs in Colombia: By some estimate, there are about 350.000 of them in Bogota alone (so imagine how many there are in the whole of Colombia). This is a real nuisance, and strangely enough I am not getting used to it as time goes by, but becoming more and more irritated by it somehow. The constant barking of dogs is – just like constant car alarms going off – an integral part of life here. It simply is never really quiet, no matter where you are, no matter what time of day. In restaurants, there are usually 2 or three dogs lurking around your table, hoping for some food. In the streets, especially if you are carrying any kind of food, you will have a couple of dogs following you, sometimes quite aggressively. And when walking anywhere outside a city, I cannot even count the number of times that I have been attacked by very aggressive dogs. And when walking on more remote paths, I have started to carry a stick to defend myself, as silly as it may sound. I have no idea at all, why Colombia is not doing anything against it, as these dogs just get more and more as they constantly multiply.


27th October 2022
Willy jeep

Farewell to Columbia
The Willy's jeep was the work horse of the military for a while. They are solid. Sorry our paths won't cross but I enjoyed reading your blogs. Sorry the Marriott was not all it could have been. I hope you healed quickly. Enjoy Ecuador.

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