It may have only been a week since we ( that is myself, Carly & Mark) signed off the Toucan Trip and ventured forth into the superlative countryside of Colombia but it has been packed with laughs and adventure – lots of horse-riding, a near miss with bandits, spine-juddering roads complete with landslides , coffee plantations and pre-Colombian statues galore.
As the taxi took us to Bogota airport, all three of us breathed a collective sigh of relief that we were leaving the Group behind and on the cusp of exploring a country that we were not ready to leave. Quite why anyone would continue with Toucan at this stage is beyond me….a further 3 days in Bogota, a fairly charmless capital city to then pay at their own expense to fly to Quito and simply get the 2 day journey up to Otovalo…but perhaps they were more apathetic and less adventurous than us – the three Colombian Musketeers!
Armed with top tips from fellow South Americaphiles, Kate & Matt, I had booked us into their recommended hostale in the delightful town of Salento , deep in the Zona Cafetera and an hour’s bus-ride from Armenia where our flight from Bogota delivered us. The plane skimmed in low over plantations of serried rows of coffee fringed with banana trees, and rich verdant countryside greeted us. The road from Armenia twisted up high through extravagantly beautiful scenery. Landscapes that make you stop what you are doing and stare in delight.
We jumped off the collectivo right outside our hostale and the lovely Enrique greeted me like a long lost friend…a beautiful little colonial house with a plant bedecked inner courtyard, rickety uneven wooden stairs leading us up to our room, we instantly felt relaxed and at home.
With limited time before we had to be back in Quito as C & M had a Galapagos Trip to meet there on the 17th, we decided we would go as far South as Popayan , detour out to San Augustin and then head straight back North to Cali, the salsa capital and fly from there into Quito. I found us flights with Lan Chile for £131 which we booked there and then and suddenly bingo, we then had a plan for the next 7 days.
As the sun was setting we strolled up to the mirador overlooking the Valle de Cocora where lush mountains pealed downwards…the valley carpeted in bananas, palms and bushy eucalypts. It was exquisite. The town of Salento was pretty near perfection as well with brightly coloured painted colonial dwellings lining the main street. Everywhere children played, whilst women hung over balconies talking and men in panama hats played dominoes and pool. Artesania shops spilled their contents into the cobbled street and there was a genuine sense of tranquillity and friendliness. We paused for a beer in a bar at the end of the main drag with a garden that extended out into the valley. It was the most beautiful beer garden I have ever sat in. For dinner we gorged ourselves on trout at El Rincon Lucy’s recommended by Kate and also Enrique back at the hostale. For 6000 pesos – that’s about $3 we ate like kings and waddled back down the road to our room and were in bed before 8pm in anticipation of an early start…
Altitude does funny things to you and even at 1895 metres, we could feel the effects so having caught a jeep from the main tiny town square into the Valley at 7am, we decided that horseback was the way forward and would ease the pain of a 5hr hike on foot. I negotiated us three trusty steeds and a guide and we rode for nearly 2hrs through cloud forest in the shadows of the huge palms de cera (wax palms) that the Valley is famous for. Tall, skinny trees that grow up to 200 feet towering above their lean trunks. All around the verdant , craggy land came rushing to meet us as our horses negotiated tricky mud rutted paths and fast flowing rivers. We dismounted at Acaime, the entrance to the private land of a farm high in the angled mountains where hummingbirds flew. We huffed our way up to the house…a modest dwelling amidst the forest with a very fat rooster scrobbling in the dirt, wood smoke billowing around the trees and the air thick with the vibrations of the hummingbirds as they flew in to sup on the sugar- water feeders.
I remember the first time I saw hummingbirds en masse in Tobago…they moved me to tears. They are such delicate, elegant creatures ….watching them flit around, dipping their proboscis like beaks into the sugar whilst their wings beat so ferociously creating a hum in the air is just magical. Sitting, high in the cloud forest in Colombia watching the different species moved me again. Call me soppy or hormonal but I could have sat there for hours. Sadly, we had a mountain to climb and I mean a real mountain…..a track led us upwards through the forest …every step caused our calf muscles to shudder. Im sure I could feel my ligaments groaning as I hauled my aching body up through the trees. The cloud cover had sunk really low, swirling through the forest creating an eery monochromatic landscape. At the top of the hill, bright red hot poker flowers burnt through the gloom and we sat catching our breath admiring the wispy trails of fog. The rest of the hike was downhill much to our relief and the wax palms appeared like giant triffids out of the grey fog. Rounding a bend in the valley, the fog lifted and the full vista of Valle de Cocora was there for us. Wow!
The following day we hiked into the surrounding coffee plantations of the town and got a guided tour of one of the local farms. From plant to cup, we were shown the different stages of the coffee making process – all in Spanish so I was translator for the three of us. I was astonished at how much I understood…ive improved so much. Carly and Mark don’t speak a word so are reliant on me for everything and that has forced me to raise my game. My spoken Spanish is atrociously bad with a dreadful vocabulary and disgraceful grammar but somehow I can understand a lot and with lots of gesticulation and guesswork I was able to translate the coffee making process from harvesting the Arabica & Colombian berries to husk removal, to drying, to roasting to crushing, to drinking. Yum.
We could have stayed in Salento for much longer – a tranquil haven but other Colombian destinations were on the agenda so 2 bus rides and 6 hours later having been squeezed into a shaky old bus, we arrived in Popayan, considered one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. We arrived in the the dark and lashing rain and frustratingly the hostale Kate had recommended was full so we trudged round the corner to a less than salubrious establishment run by a man with webbed feet and a collection of bibles in the foyer. It was late. It was dark. We were tired. There was nothing crawling in the beds and for 18,000 pesos each we had our own room in which we cracked open a bottle of rum to celebrate making it this far and the fact I found my passport which I thought id lost. For a brief while I thought I was going to have to bugger back to Bogota and head straight for the British Consulate but then having pulled my bag apart I found the damn thing slipped carefully in a place I remember putting it…my memory is heinous. Hence, the first bottle of rum disappeared all too quickly and so Mark in his slightly inebriated state donned his waterproofs and went out into stormy night in search of more. We demolished that as well much to the chagrin of our very strange religious host. Apologies were made the following day for our uncouth and possibly rambunctious behaviour although we were the only guests in that particular establishment that evening…..
A rum hangover in a colonial town on a sunny day where every building is whitewashed is painful. The glare off the buildings caused us all to grimace as we tried to enjoy the architecture and atmosphere of the place but all we wanted to do the following day was snuggle down under the duvet and watch movies on the laptop. I treated myself to an 8000pesos (c$4) pedicure but really getting pissed in Popayan didn’t let us do justice to the city. Bad pizza that night nearly finished us off.
We left the following day on a decrepit bus replete with rain leaking windows and ceiling to journey to San Augustin, famous for its pre-Colombian anthropomorphic statues dotted throughout the campesinos. This was a hellish journey on 126kms of unsurfaced mountain roads that made the roads in Bolivia seem positively smooth. It snaked upwards over forlorn sierra and as we ascended the mountain, the temperature dropped, the clouds rolled in and the road became a quagmire of sludge and grit. Every few hundred metres, evidence of landslides lay on the side of the road and all the locals sported wellington boots underneath their mud-encrusted ponchos. It was 6 hours of butt and back torture and getting to the delightful Casa de Nelly was a huge relief. 1km out of town, this hostale was one of the best of the trip. A gorgeous adobe built house set in acres of tropical gardens with towering heliconia and all manner of colourful shrubs and bushes. Hummingbirds were painted on the wooden doors and the eccentric Madame Nelly herself welcomed us to her home.
The following day Crazy Carlos, our guide arrived at 830am with his horses and we rode for 5 hours around the various pre-Colombian sites culminating at the archaeological park. This was another blissful day….trotting through the Colombian countryside with vistas of the Rio Magdalena and sweeping glacial hewn valleys…all was heaven until a Polish couple and their guide met us at the La Chakira site and informed us another group had just been robbed by armed bandits and could they ride with us…safety in numbers and all that. To be honest, stories of active guerrilla groups in this area abound but apparently its safe now. Ha! We didn’t feel very safe at that moment in time…it was a case of removing memory cards from cameras and shoving them down my cleavage , folding up our pesos notes and slipping them into our bras and sliding my precious Swiss army knife into my shoe. There was no way I was going to be able to conceal my camera on my person so resolutely concluded that if the bandits targeted us, that’s what they would be getting. Thankfully however, we managed to continue the ride without being ambushed and got home safe and untouched.
Apparently, the Foreign Office a few years ago advised of any unnecessary travel in this area…things have changed for the better but evidently not completely. To be perfectly honest overall I have felt more uneasy in Brazil than anywhere in Colombia and I don’t regret our little foray into the South West of the country. Being stopped on public buses by armed militia , marched off the bus and having bags searched is common and its happened a few times. However, these are the good guys…. Passing armoured tanks on the road was somewhat disconcerting and we came close to regretting coming this far South the following morning when the news was full of the road closure from San Augustin to Popayan. There had been a landslide overnight and potentially we were marooned….. But, you know what the media’s like….even Colombian media is prone to over exaggeration and we discovered once we got into town that the roads had been cleared and we would be able to get back North.
The return journey was a test of patience though. Believe it or not the road was in even worse condition than when we had come in from the west and the 126kms took a very sore and arduous 8hours. Just as we thought we were in the clear with views of Popayan in the distance we got stuck. A landslide had recently blocked the road so the driver opted for the ‘alternative’ route into to the city and we bounced and juggled our way round the fields and pastures until our spines could no longer take it….. Swapping mini-buses in Popayan, what appeared to be a newer model (with no leaking windows) actually got us 30 mins out of the city and then the engine blew up frazzling all the electrics jamming the door so we were stuck inside whilst noxious smoke wafted back into the bus.
After nearly 14 hours of travel we made it to Cali and our hostale and crashed. Cali during the day was unappealing and with our minds set on getting that flight to Quito, all systems were in Ecuador mode. I parted company with Carly & Mark and took the taxi on to my hostale in the deserted and decidedly dodgy old town. With a taxi driver who evidently couldn’t read a map, it took a bit of time to locate my ramshackle building but I made it and for $9US I had my own room ensuite for the night.
So, farewell Colombia – it has been a magnificent few weeks and im very pleased and proud I managed to do it on my own terms. It feels like ive returned to the familiar in Ecuador and I have no qualms about going it alone for the final part of the journey…although I would much have preferred to have been doing this with a friend. Fiona…Alan…..Michelle……the possibilities were all there!
A good chunk of adventure still lies ahead and im still hungry for it. That insatiable traveller in me just wont lie low…….
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