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Published: September 18th 2015
Buenos dias mi amigo!
A happy welcome from the San Agustin locals.
Colombia hadn’t been high on my list of holiday destinations, mostly due to my ignorance about the country and a once well-deserved reputation for it being rather a dangerous place to visit. However, when informed by good friend Bear (Cath) last summer that she and her Colombian fiancé, Hector, were planning a wedding in Bogota, as you can imagine it jumped straight to the top.
For those of us lucky enough to get invited, initial thoughts turned to the FCO website and is it even safe to go there? Turns out a lot has changed in the country since the crazy days of the 80s and 90s. Although a few areas still remain off limits, most of the country looked good to go and with reassurance from the Colombian connections that it is perfectly fine to travel to most of the country, how could I turn down such an invitation?
In the end eight of us from the UK decided to make the journey, I headed up the advanced party of Cocina Tours with Ian and we were to meet the others en route for various adventures down the line. So the three week adventure was to begin, after
Breakfast like a Paisa
After only one hour at Bogota airport, we were already feasting like the locals. The first taste of plantain and rice, the first of many, many, many tastes...
a flurry of planning and research, we boarded our flight from Heathrow to Bogota one Tuesday evening and settled in ready to step into the unknown.
We had planned a clockwise route around the country, on arrival in Bogota we would board another flight to Neiva where we were to be picked up and taken to the Tatacoa Desert, then on to San Agustin - Popayan - fly from Cali airport to Medellin - Cartagena - Santa Marta - trek to the Lost City and finally fly back down to Bogota for the wedding at the end of the trip.
On arrival in Bogota airport it was immediately clear that English wasn’t going to be that widely spoken and the first challenge after an 11 hour flight was to get ourselves to the other terminal. My natural cautiousness when it comes to flights means we had rather a lot of time to kill. Armed with a trusty Latin American Spanish phrase book we managed to overcome this first hurdle with great success. Whilst Bogota airport at dawn is obviously a spectacular sight, we had a long wait until out next flight so thoughts turned to food and we
Bye bye Bogota
The sprawling city
hit the food court ready to sample Colombia’s finest.
The first meal set the trend for the rest of the holiday, turns out Colombian food often consists of rice, plantain and something ‘a la plancha’. The plancha part means something grilled which is usually either chicken (pollo), fish (pescado) or some kind of unidentified meat (carne). Which for the first few days is rather tasty, but after three weeks I was a little plantained out..
Finally after much food and good Colombian coffee (try the ‘Tinto’) it was time to board our turboprop to Neiva and the first tour to begin. The flight out of Bogota was a bit bumpy as it is at quite a high altitude (4th
highest capital city, can you name the top three?) and the mountains around added to the fun but the flight was very short and took us south east to Neiva in the Huila department of Colombia. On landing it was clear the weather had changed rather a lot and walking out of the plane was like walking into an oven, scorchio!
Neiva airport was tiny and so it was quite easy for our guides, Pedro and Ricalte, to
The Posadero Sol De Verano, sleep with the scorpions if you dare
spot who the Gringos were (can’t think why) and welcomed us and escorted us to a rather large 4x4. Our first night was to be spent in the Tatacoa desert, not really a desert but a dry tropical forest ecosystem, where we could do a bit of exploring, swimming and star gazing as long as the scorpions didn’t get us first.
First stop was for some lunch in the town outside of the desert, Villavieja, on the banks of the Rio Magdalena. We dined at a nice local restaurant called Sol y Samba which was prettily decorated in the colours of the Colombian flag. It was already clear that Colombia was certainly going to be a very colourful country indeed. Lunch came with rice, plantain and some ‘plancha pollo’, have you spotted a trend yet? We also tried the local ‘Poker’ beer (you bet I did.. groan..) which was rather tasty and my favourite of the trip. Post plancha we got back into the car, stocked up on some Poker and agua and headed out to our posada (hotel) in the desert.
We checked in and changed into some more appropriate desert attire and then took a drive
Fifty shades of..
The grey Los Hoyos side of the Tatacoa desert
out to the ‘Los Hoyos’ area of the Tatacoa which is the grey mud area. The erosion of the wind and rain creates a very interesting landscape. The clay cracks and forms many bizarre shapes and crevasses. Some parts are like model of a mountain range and you feel like a giant walking among them. Our guide didn’t speak too much English, so a bit was lost in translation however the area was so beautiful you didn’t really need to have an explanation as the landscape spoke for itself.
The locals have utilised the groundwater and created a few swimming pools, which for a few pesos provide some welcome relief from the blistering heat of the desert. So after our walk we took a lovely dip in one such pool and enjoyed a swim among the cacti.
Colombia being an equatorial country has a strict timetable for sunset and by this point we were running out of daylight, so we headed back to the posada before it got too dark. This also allowed us to fully enjoy the sunset over the desert, the sunlight on the orange clay produced amazingly vivid oranges and reds which highlighted the crenulations
These formations are known as 'fantasma', that's a ghost to the non-Spanish speaking among you.
of the clay formations.
The swiftness that darkness comes when you are close to the equator never ceases to amaze me and being in the desert with hardly any electric lights around, boy this got dark quickly. Also by this point we had been up rather a long time and were starting to feel the effects of the travel and heat. Dinner was provided, you can guess what it was by now and then it was getting late, oh about 8pm, time for the show at the astronomical observatory just up the road.
The darkness of the desert and the clear skies makes it perfect for an observatory and each night they host a show with some telescopes set up for you to take a look at the night skies. We joined the other tourists for the show which was naturally all in Spanish, so again quite a lot was lost on us but it didn’t take away from the amazing night skies, so many stars…
Still I was clearly picking up Spanish as I could understand ‘Saturno! Saturno!’ as the guy kept saying every other minute, not to forget ‘globular cluster’, whatever one of those is.
Is that a mirage?
One of the natural groundwater pools, in the heat of the day a very welcome sight
However the rings of Saturn were clearly visible from one of the telescopes and it was pretty amazing, I even saw a couple of shooting stars to round off the evening. Sadly by this point we were fading fast, probably not helped by the fact we were lying on the floor of the observatory looking up to the skies, struggling to stay awake it was time for bed.
The next morning dawn broke about 6.30am and that meant time to get up, breakfast was served and we had our first taste of the corn arepas which are a staple in Colombia, often served instead of bread. They also serve a hot chocolate which is not like any hot chocolate I’ve had before, but rather tasty and not forgetting the coffee, strong..
Before we left the Tatacoa we took a walk around the labyrinthine area to the base of the observatory, this was in the orange clay area called ‘Cuzco’. This really was like walking through a miniature Grand Canyon and had some amazing cacti to boot. Time to leave the desert, we said adios to Pedro and headed south along the banks of the Rio Magdalena to our
I'm not sure why
But people build these little cairns for luck or love.
next stop, San Agustin.
The road to San Agustin was a 6 hour drive which was to take us through ever changing scenery. Our driver also told us, this was the first of many times on the trip that we would be told, that ‘Kids fly kites in August in Colombia because in August Colombia is windy’. This explained the many kites being sold at road junctions along the way and was certainly evident for the rest of the trip, I just hope come the 1st
September those kids put those kites away!
As we journeyed even further south the arid landscape became more fertile, passing fields of tobacco, corn, cotton, coffee, rice and plantains. Driving through a town named after a gigantic tree, plancha lunch at a truck stop and some cheese by the side of the road given to us by a very friendly Colombian man. At this point we started to notice the large amount of election posters in each town, the standard format for these posters for people standing for ‘Alcalde’ (mayor) was a photo of them with their hands in a variety of different poses: thumbs up; hands clasped; punching the air etc.
The Valley of Sorrows
As named by conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada in 1538, but then those Spanish brought much sorry to the continent, I have little sympathy.
I think the UK politicians could learn a lesson from them, they get my vote.
Late afternoon we arrived in the small town of San Agustin and the Hotel Yuma, which was rather reminiscent of my time in Kenya, but then it is pretty much a similar equatorial environment. The town was a typical colonial style town with a church on a square and quite a few mules thrown in for good measure, but the lemonade with aniseed was a revelation, very delicious. Plancha for dinner and some rowdy dancing back at the hotel thanks to the group of Italians staying there who hired a local band.
The following day and it was time for a bit of culture, after being encouraged to try the coca tea for breakfast we set out with a spring in our step and headed off with our latest guide, Lucio Marino, to the San Agustin Archaeological Park. Naturally I was now imagining myself in an Indiana Jones movie and our guide certainly looked the part in his jaunty hat. Our day was split between two parks, in the morning we visited the San Agustin Park and the afternoon was spent in the
If you like Cacti, you will like Tatacoa
Alto de los Ídolos. We arrived at the first park nice and early and were presented with our San Agustin passport, how exciting. Basically the whole area is one big graveyard, burial mounds abound and there are many unearthed stone statues are on view. The park has the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic structures in South America constructed between 1-900AD and is only a small percentage of the monuments which cover the surrounding hills, so many are still yet to be uncovered.
Our guide explained most of the statues are ‘anthropomorphic’ (say that after a few Poker beers) and they have distinct characteristics of: Jaguar mouth (as in the cat), no neck, short legs and strange eyes. He also explained that a lot of the graves had been dug up due to rumours spread by people about them containing gold but now the government has taken steps to protect the graves. The whole park was very impressive and the statues were really interesting, some were rather amusing as well, amazing what these ancient societies got up to.
After more plancha for lunch, we headed off to the second park of the day, it was at the
This is the orange Cuzco side of the desert
top of a big hill and gave rather impressive views of the surrounding Rio Magdalena valley, it was quite strange as you would suddenly remember you were on top of some Andes, San Agustin being in the middle range of the three sets of Andes that run through the country.
Once we’d statued ourselves out our driver took us down a rather scary road and to the narrowest point of the Rio Magdalena river, the river flows north to the Caribbean for most of the length of Colombia, entering the sea by the city of Barranquilla which we were to witness later in the trip. Finally it was back to the hotel and even more Colombian music and dancing, they do enjoy themselves in Colombia.
Up early again the next day as we had a very long journey ahead of us. A 6 hour drive over the Andes and quick stop in Popayan before getting to Cali airport and a flight to Medellin. Now I finally understood why we had been given such a huge 4x4 even though our driver was about my height, I’m quite tall in Colombia! The first hour or so was gentle climbing up
Just so you know where you are
It's not actually a desert but an arid zone.
through the sugar cane growing region and then we headed for the road to Popayan through the Puracé National Natural Park. The road soon turned into a mud track however that didn’t stop huge trucks and lots of people on mopeds taking the trip. There was quite a large army presence too, possibly due to this stilling having a bit of FARC activity in the area. I had no idea about at the time, only to be enlightened of the fact a couple of weeks later, ah well, ignorance is bliss. Locals also take it upon themselves to try and fill the pot holes and the drivers passing through give them some pesos for their trouble. The road was very interesting and very high, at one point we hit altitude of 3200m and we even stopped for some coffee and cheese, yep, coffee and cheese, the cheese goes in the coffee. Actually it is not as gross as it seems.
Finally we started our descent and stopped off for a quick tour of Popayan, also known as the ‘White City’ for obvious reasons. Famous for its colonial architecture, a lot of it now having been rebuilt after an earthquake
It is also a tropical dry forest
in 1983, however the visit was brief as we had to swap cars, say adios to our driver, Ricalte, and head up the road to Cali airport. The atmosphere had turned rather tropical and humid again and the road to the airport was lined with sugar cane processing plants and huge road trains of about 8 lorries strung together.
The day ended with a short flight to Medellin and the most amazing evening drive into a city I have ever had. The city is placed deep in a long valley and as you head into it the long road down into the valley was spectacular with all the lights of the city shimmering in the dark.
Our hotel was in the El Poblado region of the city close to the ‘Zona Rosa’ nightlife area, after a quick check in we headed out to find some dinner and stumbled into the Zona Rosa and had the shock of our lives. Perhaps it was the combination of our exhaustion from travel, it being a Saturday night and also the weekend of one of the big festivals of the year in Medellin, it was all a bit too much. The square
was heaving, bars pumping out latin music and revellers all in Panama hats, if you have ever been on one of those holidays in Greece or Magaluf, you can imagine the scene. Anyway, enough for now, you can read all about Medellin in the next instalment…
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